Learning to speak English

Every profession or every field of endeavor has its own lingo, its own slang, its own acronyms, its own way of saying things. That’s okay as long as you’re talking among colleagues. In our Missourinet newsroom we talk about ledes, wraps, VAs, cut-and-copy, slugs, cuts and bites and other words and phrases that mean something in the newsroom but are useless in the real world.

Years and years ago when the wire services were charged by the word to transmit their stories, a special shorthand was developed (perhaps we’ll review it someday. Twitter’s 140-word limit might provide a rebirth to that old system). One message sent from a central office to a bureau at the Capitol said something like WRAP RUP SAP. Or there was the famous headline in VARIETY, the show business publication:


In the first message, the central office was telling the Capitol bureau to finish work (wrap) on a roundup of stories (rup) about the legislature as soon as possible (sap).

The Variety article was about how country folks did not think much of the stereotypical Hollywood movies about country folks, those who lived “in the sticks.”

We have a great appreciation, yea sympathy perhaps, for the people who work in places such as the University of Missouri press office who send us press releases about the latest research done at the University. Granted, the headlines are not real grabbers at times:

Newly Identified ‘Broad-Spectrum’ Aptamers Could Boost Efforts to Combat HIV

Researchers Identify Genetic Pathway of Abscission in Plants

MU Expert Urges FDA Action on Bisphenol A

MU Researchers To Examine Environmental, Health Effects of Silver Nanoparticles

But consider what they had to work with. The press release itself explains what aptamers are, what abscission is, what the deal is with Bisphenol A and why anybody should care about Sliver Nanoparticles. That means the person in the press release office had to get together with the person or the people behind the research and translate research-speak into layman’s English.

Put yourself in their position. Imagine you were told you had to write a news release about a proposal to do some important research and the research was explained like this:

The proposed research will thus have both basic and applied science components. The former will be based on key scientific concepts underlying early development, cell-extracellular matrix (ECM) interactions, epithelial-mesenchymal transformation and physical mechanisms of morphogenesis. The latter will rely on the technology of bioprinting, specifically, our custom-built bioprinters operating with “bioink” particles composed of spheroidal cell aggregates and “biopaper” made of biocompatible ECM-containing hydrogels.


Imagine a researcher who’s all pumped up about this amazing project he or she is working on trying to tell you this over a cup of coffee. You might be driven to fortifying your coffee, assuming you didn’t start thinking about what lovely wings that fly on the wall has by the time your friend got to “cell-extracellular matrix.”

Help might be on the way for our research friends. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has given the University of Missouri-Columbia a million-and-a-half bucks to create a program to teach scientists how to—get this now—communicate with the public. An institute with the name of a guy who wanted to speak to almost nobody for a good part of his life is funding a program to teach scientists to talk to everybody in ways that everybody can understand.

It works on the concept that if you teach them while they’re young, you’ve got them forever. Science students will meet weekly with journalism graduate students. The journalism graduate students will watch science students in their laboratories. The product of this interaction will be an Online Media Lab that will make science coverage available to 2,400 newspapers. We broadcasters apparently don’t count but perhaps we should not be surprised, given our penchant for artificially and often externally-imposed rules that say no story is worth more than thirty seconds and if it’s on television has to have some visually-grabbing, uh, visuals. The Missourinet, by the way, does not buy the thirty second limit nonsense.

On the surface this seems like a great idea. The journalist gets to see what’s being done so the journalist can ask the questions that a layman might ask and the scientist can learn to explain in the simple language journalists understand what is being done. Remember, the long-held standard in journalism is that we try to take complicated issues and write about them in a way that the average sixth-grader can understand, a standard set long, long ago that might need upgrading in today’s world where more people do have college educations. Maybe we need to write at the level of eighth graders now.

But we inject a note of caution. When journalism students go into graduate school and when they are asked to write a thesis or a dissertation, almost everything they have been taught as undergraduates about writing short, clear, declarative sentences goes out the window. A recent professional journal of journalism research contained this statement:

“It’s not known whether the psychological impact of a disaster will impede learning for the types of education information that could potentially ameliorate the negative consequences of media exposure.”

OMG (as the old wire service reporter might say today).

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