Just some words in a story?

Your faithful scribe was reading a newspaper this morning as he dipped the spoon into his bowl of cereal.  Wife Nancy was listening to a news program on the radio. A newspaper article mentioned a “former graduate” of a Missouri high school who had gone on to greater heights.  The news person on the radio referred to the St. Louis County Grand Jury that “failed to return an indictment” against Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson.

“Why did he say ‘failed to return an indictment’ instead of saying ‘failed to find enough evidence to indict,'” she asked.   Not a bad question for a non-lawyer, non-reporter.

Most folks who consume information as well as many who write it forget or have never known that writing news is a mental discipline, not a mechanical task.  A friend named Ed Bliss who had written news for Edward R. Murrow and later for Walter Cronkite used to say we have become “slovenly” in our use of the English language.  And he’s correct.

He said it as a warning to the journalists he was talking to in seminars.  But the comment also is true in how we communicate with one another. And that brings us to the breakfast conversation this morning.   And it also emphasizes the care that journalists have to exercise in their writing.

It is always difficult to write about the discipline of good writing because readers enjoy becoming editors who are delighted to turn the table. Nonetheless–

Two questions about wording of news stories came up during breakfast.  “Former graduate” is the easiest to deal with.  One does not become a former graduate, we suppose, unless the institution takes away the diploma, degree, or certificate.

The grand jury question  is a little more technical.

Let us begin with a difference between “not guilty” and “innocent.”  Those words do not mean the same thing.  “Innocent” means someone did not do something.  “Not guilty” in the trial sense means that the prosecutor did not present a strong enough case to convince a jury that the defendant committed the act of which he or she is accused. Sometimes the prosecutor does an inadequate job.  Sometimes the evidence is what is inadequate.

The difference between “innocent” and “not guilty” is the difference between being honest and being credible.   Honest is related to truth.  Credibility is related to the capability to be believed regardless of truth.

Reporters sometimes will write “innocent” in their stories because of a nagging fear that if they intend to write “not guilty” but leave out the word “not,” they might face a defamation suit from the person found NOT guilty. Caution, in this example, produces inaccuracy.

The reporter’s phrase “failed to indict” is an incorrect description of  what happened.  It also carries with it an implication that the reporter thinks the grand jury should have done something different, thus crossing a line between reporting and commenting.   What happened is that the prosecution was unable to present enough information to convince the grand jury to issue a charge against Officer Darren Wilson.   The grand jury did not “fail”  to indict.  It just “did not” indict.

It’s a subtle but an important difference, particularly in times when words are so cheap, understanding is so difficult, and reason seems to be rare.

Reporters are humans and our words are not always chosen as carefully or with the precision we should use.  But with so much behavior hinging on public attitudes about highly-visible events, we are called on to choose our words carefully and from time to time explain them to our consumers.


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3 thoughts on “Just some words in a story?

  1. I could not agree more but I was trained as an engineer so forgive my butchering of our expressive language.

  2. Many consumers of news attribute the use of misleading words to editorial bias rather than a mere slovenly application of the English language. If the reporter’s words were subjected to an editor’s pencil before publication, instead of, say, simply a quick pass through the computer’s “Spell Check” program, the assumption increases exponentially.

  3. “What happened is that the prosecution was unable to present enough information to convince the grand jury to issue a charge against Officer Darren Wilson. ” We don’t know that they were unable. We might know that “On the basis of the evidence presented, and other possible considerations of which we are unaware, the grand jury did not issue a charge…..”

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