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.


Governor Nixon’s Miss South Carolina moments

Governor Nixon is being kicked around for his rambling, stumbling, bumbling, garbled, nonsensical, jumbled, non-answer to a simple question in this week’s conference-call news conference about calling out the National Guard for “just in case” duty in Ferguson.   He was asked if the buck stops with him on such decisions.   Mike Lear has covered the Nixon verbally dribbling the ball off his foot elsewhere on the Missourinet page.  And the undignified tumble down the linguistic stairs has made headlines or drawn comments nationwide if not wider.

It has become a national matter because this is the first time some of the reporters on that call encountered Jay Nixon in a situation where he wasn’t reading from a script.   He speaks very well when he has a text.  But he often leaves reporters shaking their heads in ad-lib situations, especially when he has to defend a position.  We’re going to share another one with you today.

This attention to his ungraceful way of expressing thoughts is a bit of a shame because Jay Nixon is a smart, savvy, politician who is unafraid to butt heads with any members of the legislature, a style that upsets members of the opposite party who seem to think he should be more amenable to their wishes because they are, after all, more than two-thirds of the membership of another branch of government.

We have written often of the Nixon administration’s efforts to keep reporters from talking to people in state agencies who have the expertise to answer our questions.  A few days ago Nixon announced a new director of the Department of Revenue.  That led to this exchange—and imagine you are a reporter hoping desperately for a good quote for your article or your newscast:

Bob Priddy, the Missourinet:  “Is this going to be another department director people like us (referring to the Capitol press corps) won’t be allowed to talk to?”

Nixon:  “Well I mean we’ll continue to uh, uh, uhm,  provide , uh, public information , uh, in a uh, uhm, in a way that attempts  to uh to service the needs of you all and Missourians and uh –”

Priddy:  “That doesn’t really answer the question. Will I be able to call her up and talk to her–”

Nixon:  “She will, she will be like all of the other directors and uh operating under the policies we have to  try to get information out in a consistent way so that we’re making sure the folks uh uhm, you know, so that she is fully informed, her staff is fully informed and everybody is on what the position of the government is on something.”

Priddy:  “I’ll take that as a ‘no.'”

(Later in the press conference):

Rudi Keller, Columbia Daily Tribune: “I just want to follow up on what Bob asked about earlier.  You’re saying you want consistent information from your departments. Does that mean, I just want to make it clear, are you saying all statements, all information—-”

Nixon: “No I’m not saying that. Six years in, guys, we’re going to keep the same rules of engagement we had before.”


“Like if I call the state Department of Health I might get to talk to the state epidemiologist about an outbreak of disease.”

Nixon: “Well maybe the state epidemiologist is working.  not sitting there and waiting for somebody to call.  You know, I mean, we, we, we make information available and we make it in, we, we try to make sure what we say is accurate, we try to make sure what we do is timely, uh and we have an obligation to you all to get that information to you an, and we try to live up that obligation. Uhm, and so, you know, it, it, that’s the way it rolls.”

Phill Brooks, Missouri Digital News: “Picking up on Rudi’s  question, when you were Attorney General Denny Donnell was the state epidemiologist. He was the go-to source–”

Nixon: “Guys, we, we spent, the whole country spent—”

Brooks: (unintelligible)

Nixon: “Yeah, the whole country spent  three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, six weeks with people saying all sorts of things about Ebola and four years ago about H1N1. On health matters, having a consistent, appropriate,  mature, hu hu, verifiable position, hu, not just getting somebody on the phone saying what they think is really important. So you bet we’re going to make sure we’re communicating directly, consistently and appropriately on these matters involving public health. I mean, uh, h, it’s , I mean, you got, uh, I mean, this, these are very, the way that, especially with this Ebola thing, I mean, my golly, uh  you’ve got, you know, some of the things that that were said and done in the first few weeks of that, uh you know, have been very uh-huh, eh, very, just challenging. So on public health things especially where you have outbreaks of this nature when people have a great deal of fear when it’s in some people’s interest to stoke that interest for reasons other–I’m not saying it’s the media–I meant there are other people that would stoke that fear for, especially during an election cycle some of the stuff that was said was, was health-wise very irresponsible, very irresponsible  around the country and just wasn’t–you know, we wanted to make sure  that that we were a solid source, that we were consistent in our policies, that we were appropriately prepared  for whatever might occur, uh, but that we were doing that while balancing the rights of Missourians and not try to see situations where in other states you’ve had schools closing, you’ve have people locked up when they came to America with no rights, and no, and all that sort of stuff. And we were very involved and disciplined in how that was communicated publicly because failure to do so could lead to significant fear out there uhm uhm at times that that that it’s not warranted. So we’ll continue on matters of that nature to, to, be, be responsible and timely uhm but uh uhm I just think  uh uh, Dr. Vasterling and her teams uh have done a great job of being out front, training, working, of being calm and uhm  uh, you know, it’s uh, we will continue on matters of public health to have that manner of discipline. Thank you very much.” (and he left the room).

It is now about two weeks after that press conference.  And we’ve listened to that recording several times including numerous times when we tried to transcribe it for this blog.  We probably missed a few of the times he said “Uh” or variations of it but you get the gist.

And the gist is that no, we can’t speak to people who have the expertise in the matters we need to tell you about, whether it is information about the collection of taxes or how dangerous the Swine Flu might be.  It is true that the state epidemiologist doesn’t just sit around waiting for somebody from the press to call.  In fact, the state epidemiologist better not be doing that regardless of whether the Nixon Communications Ministry has built a wall around him (or her.  It’s been so long since we talked to that person that we don’t know who it is, which probably pleases the NCM).  But the state epidemiologist has been free under previous administrations to call us back at his convenience and give us expert information, not information that is “the position of government” delivered by a department spokesman.  Reporters and the public should want information, especially information about serious health issues, from an expert, not somebody who can spout the—let’s see if we can get all of the appropriate words in here–consistent, accurate, timely, mature, appropriate, verifiable POSITION of the government.

In fairness to these spokesman, we should note that one of them told us once, “Do you suppose we LIKE to do it this way?”

Remember Mayor Larry Vaughn of the fictional village of Amity, who said, “As you see, it’s a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time. Amity, as you know, means ‘friendship'”.  That was the consistent, accurate, timely, mature, appropriate, verifiable position of the government.

But Matt Hooper was the expert the Mayor didn’t want the people to hear.  And he said, “What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.”

So can reporters talk directly to the Matt Hoopers of state government?   Take Governor Nixon’s meander through the forest of communication, tripping over the stumps of incomplete sentences and walking into verbal cobwebs and syntactical low-hanging limbs, as a “no.”


One observer after the Ferguson/National Guard conference called likened Governor Nixon to Caitlin Upton, then an 18-year old Miss South Carolina contestant in the 2007 Miss Teen USA  Pageant who was asked, “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U. S. on a world map.  Why do you think this is?”   Her response made her an internet superstar:

“I personally believe that U. S. Americans are unable to do so because, um, some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as, uh, South Africa and, uhm, the Iraq and everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U. S. should help the U.S, uh, should help South Africa and should help Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future.”

She later told the TODAY show she froze and when given a do-over change on the program said, “If the statistics are correct, I believe there should be more emphasis on geography in our education so people will learn how to read maps better.”

She’s 25 now, has done some modeling work and has been in some commercials, finished third–with her boyfriend–on one of the “Amazing Race” television shows, and now is a real estate agent in California.

Perhaps Caitlin Upton should send Governor Nixon a comforting letter emphasizing that people who cannot get out of the way of their own tongues can still have a future.

A consistent, accurate, timely, mature, appropriate, verifiable future.


The Season of “Locking”

It’s November, slouching toward December.  It’s cold and we’ve had snow.  So far the snow has helped the male resident of a certain house on Engelwood Drive avoid the final leaf-raking of the year.  But nothing lasts forever.  The snow will go away.  The leaves will remain.  Nancy will demand that I get involved with yard work after adroitly ignoring most of it through the good, warm days by going to work in the Missourinet newsroom.

November is an awkward month.  It’s not quite official Winter yet.  But it sure has quit feeling like Autumn.   We have discovered why November leaves people a little unsettled.

Famous author Kurt Vonnegut theorized there are six seasons, not four.  He has a valid point.

We picked up a little book a few weeks ago called “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?”   It’s a compilation of nine graduation speeches Vonnegut gave.  As with all great speech-givers, he borrows from himself from time to time but he always has something new to add, depending on the audience.  In his speech to graduates of Fredonia College in Fredonia, New York  (Does anybody else think of the Marx Brothers’ movie “Duck Soup” at this point?) in 1978, Vonnegut told them:

“There are six seasons instead of four.   The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time.  I mean, Spring doesn’t feel like Spring a lot of the time, and November is all wrong for Fall and so on.  Here is the truth about the seasons.

“Spring is May and June!  What could be Springier than May and June?  Summer is July and August. Really hot, right?  Autumn is September and October. See the pumpkins?  Smell those burning leaves.  Next comes the season called “Locking.”  That is when Nature shuts everything down.  November and December aren’t Winter. They’re Locking.  Next comes Winter, January and February.  Boy! Are they ever cold!  What comes next?  Not Spring.  Unlocking comes next.  What else could April be?”

March, too, is “Unlocking.”  March isn’t quite winter anymore and can tempt us with the idea that Winter is gone.  Life begins a serious return in April. That makes a lot more sense than the Solstice thing.  It never makes sense to have the days start getting longer as the weather gets colder or for the days to start getting shorter as the weather gets hotter.  Oh, we know the days remain 24 hours long but you know what we’re talking about.

So this is the season of Locking.  Wish I could lock up the rake.   But I think Nancy has the only key.