Tuesday, April 28, 2015

PET PEEVES: SOME ARE CONSIDERABLY MORE JOURNALISTCALLY FORGIVEABLE THAN OTHERS

I think every newspaper editor has his or her pet peeves. Certainly, it seems that all of them that I've ever worked with did.

For the late Bob Crumpler -- my wonderful, curmudgeonly, legendary city editor at The Louisville Times back in the early '70s -- it was the usage (or more accurately the improper usage) of the word "presently" as in a sentence something like this: "The city council is presently considering and ordinance that would..."

If you used "presently" in that manner, Crump, a stickler on English language usage, would call you to come to the city desk and, as you stood there before him, publicly embarrass you by quite accurately pointing out that the word "presently" was not a proper substitute for "currently" or "now" since in "proper English" its first definition essentially is "soon to."

He would then go on to further embarrass the miscreant by snarly pointing out that if you meant the city council was at this time considering "an ordinance that would...", you were not only being incorrect to use the word "presently," but were also employing unnecessary verbiage if you used either "now" or "currently" since that is implied by merely writing "the city council is considering and ordinance that would..."

Crumpler's very public pointing out of these sorts of "egregious" errors -- a method that would drive into apoplectic shock today's newspaper HR people, who've contributed so much in recent decades to destroying such pointed newsroom learning experiences -- ensured that the offending reporter never again made THAT particular mistake.

For my very first editor in the mid-60s, John Anderson, managing editor of the New Albany (Ind.) Tribune, a major pet peeve was usage of the word "last" when what you really should have used was "past," as in: "At its last meeting, the city council..." When you committed that error, Anderson would call you to his desk and inquire: "Are you saying here that there will never be another city council meeting?" Touche.

As anyone who ever worked with me will readily confirm, I had a few pet peeves of my own, including those I acquired from Anderson, Crumpler and other editors I worked for before suddenly finding myself sitting in the city editor's chair.

One of my biggest pet peeves -- and something that still drives me nuts when I see it almost two years after I retired and last set foot in a newsroom -- is what I always referred to as "who-that-which confusion" (or, more informally, "who dat witch"). The improper usage of the words "who, that and which."

Rather than go into the complex details of what, in this instance, is the proper word to use when, let me refer you to very good and simple explanation on website dailywritingtips.com of when to use who, that or which. Here is the appropriate link: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/when-to-use-that-which-and-who.

Unfortunately, when to use who, that, or which is something that most spell check programs -- particularly the Microsoft Word version seemingly used by most newspapers -- not only won't help you with, but may also make you an innocent of. I've found, for instance, that the Microsoft Word's spell check, which is the only one I've ever used, almost invariably automatically changes a properly used "who" into an improperly used "that."

As disturbing as the word usage pet peeves may be, let's be very honest and acknowledge that most ordinary readers have become so lackadaisical about the English language that they generally go unnoticed by all except cranky English teachers and grumpy editors. Other than making a reporter and his or her news outlet look a bit stupid and ill educated, these errors don't really do any potentially serious damage.

That, however, is not the case with what I regard as one of my biggest journalistic pet peeves and one that was always hammered home with particular ferocity by both Crumpler and Anderson -- convicting, in print or on camera, someone who has merely been arrested or charged in connection with a crime.

The system of justice in the United States is based on the principle that any person accused of any crime -- including even the most heinous of offenses -- is presumed innocent until he or she either pleads or is found guilty by a judge or jury.

All too often, however, that presumption of innocence can effectively be stripped away by the wording used in stories that report an arrest.

Take, for example, this lead from a story posted Apr. 26, 2015, on valleycentral.com, the website for TV station KGBT, based in Harlingen, Texas:

"Officers arrested a 49-year-old man who was wanted for inappropriately touching a six-year-old girl, when he attempted to enter the United States on Friday." Here is the link to the full story: http://www.valleycentral.com/news/story.aspx?id=1196307#.VT-AGl90yos.

The story, based on a U.S. Customs and Border Protection press release, goes on to name Mario Martin Vasquez of Corpus Christi as the person arrested.

Because of the way it is worded, this lead, essentially, convicts Vasquez without benefit of a trial by stating that he "was wanted FOR inappropriately touching..."

He was, in fact, and it SHOULD have been more accurately and appropriately written this way, "wanted ON CHARGES of inappropriately touching a six-year-old girl."

Granted, there are few criminal offenses considered more heinous than child sexual molestation, but those accused of such offense -- and any other criminal offense -- are entitled to the presumption of innocence that is stripped away from Vasquez by the thoughtless choice of wording in this lead.

Unfortunately, this sort of lapse in good journalistic practices can be found all around the nation on a daily basis in both the print and electronic news outlets.

To preserve the presumption of innocence and to be fair and accurate in their reporting, the media -- print or electronic -- need to be more cautious about the way stories are worded when reporting on suspects being arrested or sought in connection with crimes of all sorts.

This is Journalism 101 stuff.

Simply put, in arrest stories or even stories where someone is being sought in connection with a crime, the accused should be "arrested (or sought) on charge of" or "arrested (or sought) in connection with," but never "arrested (or sought) for."

Not only is this the fair, accurate and proper way write these sorts of stories, but -- as any media lawyer will readily tell you -- it also offers the news outlet a strong measure of protection if the person accused is ultimately found innocent of the charge or charges and decides to attempt, in our increasingly more litigious climate, to file a libel suit.

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