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Why choosing your words wisely is … well, wise

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“Subject fled the scene.” “Unknown actor subsequently fled the scene.” “When officer arrived, the perpetrator had fled the scene.”

As a former daily newspaper editor and crime reporter, I'd see some variant on "fled the scene" dozens of times a day. Most police reports end with that line, if there's no arrest or no suspect.

It raises visions of squealing tires, pounding feet and the sweaty, panic-stricken faces of miscreants, all hell-bent on getting out of town.

Except all it really means is "we arrived at the crime scene and the perp was no longer there."

If you care about accuracy, word choice matters. If there had been witnesses to see the vandal/burglar/thief/murderer/hit-and-run driver LEAVE the scene, there'd no doubt be scope for a range of other verbs. Ran. Sauntered. Walked. Raced. Hobbled. Strolled while trying to look inconspicuous. But there weren't, so there isn't.

So, I would counsel my reporters, don't make your story more (or less) exciting than it seems. Write the facts as you know them. And, really. No arrest? Then why mention at all that the bad guy wasn't there anymore?

It may seem trivial, but good reporters and editors care about this sort of thing. At the Business Journal, we often go through several rounds of editing to make sure we're using the right technical terms and, just as important, terms that don't carry emotional or political baggage.

What do I mean by "baggage"?

Here's an example from when I used to teach a course for college freshmen called "Argumentation and Persuasion." Think of it as "English 102: The Research Paper" with a point. Students learned to use research to craft and support a premise, logically and fairly. And that included being aware of how loaded words can influence your audience.

1.) "Sen. Blank today blasted opponents of his highway expansion program in a blistering attack from the Senate floor."

2.) "Sen. Blank today criticized opponents of his highway expansion program in a powerful statement from the Senate floor."

3.) "Sen. Blank today pleaded with opponents of his highway expansion program in a long-winded appeal from the Senate floor."

See the difference? How would your impression of the senator be altered if I had gone on to call him aged vs. veteran or termed his highway program a "scheme"? What if, after his opponents came around to his view, I had reported that they had been convinced rather than coerced or that they had capitulated or caved?

Exactly. Words have power. Politicians especially know this, as do marketers. They can persuade. They also can reveal bias.

That's why the approach to the debt ceiling/government shutdown adopted by Fox News last week is, to my mind, painfully transparent and slanted. It is fair to call it a "partial" shutdown, as many news organizations – including Fox – are doing. Not every federal office and function has ground to a halt.

But a "slimdown"?

Please. People are getting hurt – not least the 800,000 or so federal workers not getting paid right now.

This is a political crisis that can set a far-reaching precedent, depending on how it is resolved. Let's not pretend otherwise.

The week ahead

Many, many words are written annually about the nation's balance of trade. In the Oct. 11 issue, reporter Jim Ryan will give you the lowdown on the midstate's own import/export activity. Also in that issue, reporter Mike Sadowski writes about why Lebanon County is becoming the hot new development location.

In the same vein, reporter Jason Scott examines why midstate real estate is drawing more institutional investors.

Looking for networking opportunities? Click here.

The rewind

At the heart of the issue in D.C. right now is the attempt by House members opposed to Obamacare to attach defunding language to legislation that, unless you stretch, isn't related: raising the debt ceiling.

Did you know that the Pennsylvania Constitution specifically prohibits this sort of thing? Article III, Section 3 says, "No bill shall be passed containing more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title, except a general appropriation bill." I guess it all boils down to how you define "one subject" and "general appropriations."

Meanwhile, I hope you didn't miss our Manufacturing in the Midstate special issue Oct. 4.

Finally, my thanks to Mrs. Bishop, my junior high English teacher, who not only drilled us on grammar and syntax (sentence diagrams!) but tried to teach us the rudiments of clear thinking -- and, when they were replaced, for letting me salvage a copy of the textbook, "Warriner's English Grammar and Composition" (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1963), in which Sen. Blank resides and bloviates.

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