Thursday, June 29, 2006

Windy words for quantities

I hear numerous things in broadcast copy that make my want to tear my hair out multiple times. And that would include the words "numerous" and "multiple."

I was reminded of this in an excellent "Grammar Corner" column by Mrs. B in today's NewsBlues, on the subject of keeping "cop-talk" out of our stories. (Sorry, the content in the grammar link changes from day to day, so if you're reading this after today, you're out of luck.) "Numerous" and "multiple" weren't on the list, but both words are a classic instance that brings to mind George Orwell's dictum, "Never use a long word where a short one will do."

"Several" and "many" fill the bill quite nicely.

Monday, June 26, 2006

There's no such thing as a Saudi

OK, I don't know if I can get the AP stylebook to line up with me on this one, so I'll start with you: Avoid calling the inhabitants of Saudi Arabia "Saudis" -- as in, "Most of the hijackers on 9-11 were Saudi." Instead, say "Saudi Arabian."

Why? Because while the Saud family rules the country, not everyone there is named Saud. Richard Maybury makes a good analogy in his book The Thousand Year War: Imagine a family named Ferguson taking over Canada, renaming the country "Fergusonian Canada," and then convincing the rest of the world to call its inhabitants "Fergusonians." That's basically what the House of Saud pulled off in the Arabian Peninsula in the 1920s and 30s.

Maybury's book comes highly recommended, by the way. Published two years before 9-11, it seems almost prophetic. Agree or disagree with his viewpoint, there's much to be gained; the chapter on guerrilla warfare is alone worth the price.

Trivia aside: The only other country whose name incorporates a family's name is Jordan, where the Hashem family rules -- "The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Visual Rants

The usual topic here is broadcast news copy, which is heard but not seen. Still, it's worth noting: Spelling does count if the script you type into the newsroom computer system is the basis for closed-captioning or if it's incorporated into your station's website. To say nothing of supers and full-screen graphics.

I was reminded of this as I read something today by someone who knows the language well and still managed to write about people "who loath consumer culture." The word he intended here is "loathe." Which got me to thinking about the number of times I see the word "breath" (a noun, rhymes with "Seth") when the writer means "breathe" (a verb). I see it a lot. So consider this a friendly reminder to remember the difference.

I read something else today that got me wondering when exactly "healthcare" became one word. My 1992 American Heritage Dictionary considers it an acceptable alternative usage, and the Oxford American Dictionary on my computer considers it the primary usage, with the two-word "health care" secondary. But "healthcare" still looks strange to my fuddy-duddy eyes.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Windy word: "Officials"

I heard this on the radio this morning:

Immigration officials have arrested more than two-thousand...

Now why in the world would one use "officials" here, except out of sheer laziness? Was it not "agents" who made the arrests? "Officials" is one of those words that make our copy sound like journalese and not plain English. There's almost always a better word, depending on the context -- agents, executives, leaders, etc. The only time I remember using "officials" since I weaned myself off it years ago was in a story I had to attribute to "Homeland Security officials" -- after considerable thought, I decided I really didn't know what else they were.

"Officials" has a close relation -- "authorities" -- which sounds just plain ridiculous and has no place in a broadcast news script.

So what's the SCOre?

Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) began a summit today in, appropriately enough, Shanghai.

Why should we care? Because the SCO could be developing into the most significant challenge to U.S. power around the world since the end of the Cold War -- far more than any act of terrorism. If that turns out to be the case, it's a big story we'll be covering in the years to come.

The SCO is made up of China, Russia, and four of the "stan" countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. It formed five years ago for the usual purposes international leaders start such groups -- "international cooperation," "a forum for mutual interests," yada yada yada. But something interesting happened at last year's conference; the SCO demanded the United States close its military bases in two SCO member countries, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan -- bases the U.S. military opened shortly after 9/11 to help with the war in Afghanistan. (In fact, the Uzbekistan base shut down late last year.) Quite simply, the Chinese and Russians aren't too keen on having U.S. bases in their backyard.

This year's summit is overshadowed to some extent by an invited guest -- Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Whether Iran formally joins the SCO or takes on some sort of lesser "observer" status, you can bet people in Washington, D.C. are watching this meeting closely -- even if the major American networks and newspapers are pretty much ignoring it.

There's no guarantee the SCO will develop into what diplomats like to call a "counterweight" to U.S. power; the two biggest members, Russia and China, have had chilly relations for a long time and old disptues may flare up anew. But if the SCO does become a big deal a few years down the road, remember you read it here first.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Windy word: "Expected"

How many times do we hear something like this?

"Governor Smith is expected to announce a new health-care plan this week."

"Expected" used this way is a passive construction, and the worst kind at that -- because it doesn't say who is doing the expecting. It's sort of like the proverbial government official who says "mistakes were made" without saying who made them.

The tendency is to resort to "expected" this way when (using the example above) somebody inside the governor's office has given the AP a heads-up that an announcement is in the works, but it's not been formally scheduled. Suggested remedy:

"Governor Smith will likely announce a new health-care plan this week."

This way the verb in the sentence is no longer "is" but rather "announce." Or:

"Governor Smith is making plans to overhaul health care."

The verb here is "make" and the sentence ends with a key thought -- "health care." The part about a likely announcement this week can come in the next sentence.

Bag "expected." Expect better of yourself and your copy.

Demo watch: Gen Y and life coaches

Every so often, I run across a "sign of the times" article that has big-picture relevance to the work we do, simply because of our industry's pursuit of ever-younger demographics. It's worth noting that the youngest baby boomers will exit the vaunted 18-49 demo just seven years from now -- 2013. That's a whole generation of 78 million people arteriosclerosing their way to Madison Avenue irrelevance. The number of Gen Xers is quite small by comparison, hardly worth advertisers' trouble compared to the "Millennial" generation that follows. The people born from roughly 1979-1994 are just as numerous as the boomers. And what's the "next big thing" with this age cohort? Life coaching.

Life coaches are the upbeat advice-givers known for helping harried CEOs acquire work-life balance. But today, more of them are playing Dr. Phil for 20-somethings. In some ways, it's a natural tactic for a generation that grew up watching their parents pay people to solve their problems. But critics wonder whether such shortcuts undermine the value of real, sometimes bitter, experiences in building character...

Experts say today's college graduates - the front end of Generation Y - differ from their baby-boomer parents, who developed a reputation for navel-gazing. Neither do they have the same independent, sometimes cynical streak that defined their Generation X predecessors. The current crop, observers say, is coddled, accustomed to their parents hiring tutors or college-application consultants...

Human resources managers are increasingly noticing that parents are accompanying their children to job interviews, according to a COE survey. Indeed, several attendees at the Atlanta sessions were there at the behest of mom and dad.


Somehow, I have a feeling a small-market news director would laugh a job applicant out of the room if a parent tagged along. Still, the article has much food for thought about the people our newscasts will have to reach in the years to come.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Yeah, we're really sorry about all the people who fled their homes, but is there a pop culture angle?

This really is insult added to injury: The L.A. Times reports that while network news crews risk life and limb in Iraq, the suits in New York don’t think their stories are sexy enough. One example:

On his "Baghdad Journal" blog, [ABC News correspondent John] Berman plugged his piece about Iraqis' unexpected infatuation with 1980s pop singer Lionel Richie.

He also noted his "mixed feelings" that the piece aired, while a story about 100,000 Iraqis being displaced by sectarian strife sat on the shelf.


Update: Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration tells the UN the number is now closer to 180,000. Do we care now? For that matter, is it not a story that Iraq even has a Ministry of Displacement and Migration?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Domestic embedding

Hurricane season starts today, and I’m wondering what’s come of plans to embed reporters in disaster zones. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made the announcement during RTNDA in late April, but I’ve heard nothing about it since. Has DHS contacted any assignment desk types in hurricane-prone areas to make contingency arrangements?

If not, it's just as well. The concept raises all sorts of troubling questions.

As we all recall, reporters covering Katrina often seemed to know more about what was happening “on the ground” than government officials. How ironic, then, that the government is devising a system that would have the effect of keeping reporters just as ignorant as government officials.

And then there are the disturbing parallels to Iraq. While even the embeds are risking their lives (as we saw this week with the CBS crew), the few journalists who go “unilateral” multiply that risk manifold. Not only are they potential targets for insurgents and warlords and bandits, but the U.S. military has made it pretty clear that it will make little effort to guarantee the safety of unembedded journalists in hostile territory. (Philip Knightley, author of The First Casualty, elaborates on this phenomenon in a piece written three years ago that still holds up pretty well.)

Now picture this phenomenon within U.S. shores. With an embed program in place, what become the ground rules for journalists who are not embedded -- which I assume would be the overwhelming majority? Bluntly stated, will they run an increased risk of being shot if they happen to be standing between National Guardsmen and looters?

Granted, the answer is probably “no.” But these are questions that both DHS and media outlets on the East and Gulf Coasts need to think through before a domestic embed program is launched, and I have a feeling that's not happening.

Windy words of the week: "Concerning," "Regarding"

Whenever you write the words “concerning” or “regarding” in a script, go back and see if you can substitute “about.” I bet at least 95% of the time, the meaning of the sentence will be the same, and you won’t sound stuffy and stilted.