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The misnaming of things, or why labeling is important in newsrooms

August 23, 2011

I grew up 200 miles away from any members of my extended family, meaning we saw everyone on holidays but were generally on our own. Consequently, my brother and I needed someone to fill the grandparent-sized hole in our household for much of the year.* The winners of that competition were a couple two doors up whose two boys had grown up and who were more than happy to entertain two kids pretty much any time.

*I don’t mean a grandparent in the sense of someone to hug you and grab your cheek and hand you a cheesy card with a large check inside and cook a giant meal and to trade tales about the past year with at the holidays, but in the sense of someone much older than you who you’re pretty sure knows things like why the sky is blue or why the dinosaurs died. To be clear, my own grandparents were excellent at both the first and the second categories when they were around, that just wasn’t often.

When we’re home, my brother and I make a point of going to see them and catch up on where we’ve been and where we think we’re heading at the moment. I spent some time with them this past Sunday, and somehow the flow of conversation landed on jobs coming right out of school. Mr. D, an architect, said his first job had been working for a company that designed the interior of space shuttles, conversing with engineers about the size and shape of dials in order to make the panels simultaneously aesthetically pleasing and functional.

That conversation led to me beginning to think about design, and the way that it’s someone’s job to think about the trees so that a product’s users can focus on their own forests. Then I began to consider newsrooms and the language used there, a place where reporters pay closer attention to proverbial trees than most members of society.

There are, as I see it, three ways to refer to the individual pieces of reported writing that land in the paper every day, and each of them carries different implications that show how the writer views his own story.

The first of these is “article,” a word that is also used to refer to a piece of clothing. To me, the word article means the carefully measured newspaper clippings that I’d be handed by my dad and told to read two or three times a month as a kid. They’re something quick, that can be easily measured and, if they fail to hold interest, discarded as easily as a pair of ratty jeans.

An article is a very basic news story, written in the classic inverted pyramid style and giving the reader only the facts they need. On the writer’s end, an article is something that is more a piece of tradition reporting than a piece of thought-out writing. In many ways, writing an article is sticking to a checklist of whos and whats and wheres, not an artistic process.

Articles unquestionably have their place in newspapers, but their power is limited.

The second category is the “piece.” I hate calling writing “a piece.” It suggests a glass vase balanced precariously on a table that can be easily tipped over by a rambunctious five-year-old. Instead of being utilitarian or serving a purpose for the reader, it is something meant to be admired and put in a place of honor.

When I was younger, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette would run a full-page feature on the third page of the sports section every Sunday. (They could very well still run that feature, but I haven’t opened a copy of that paper’s Sunday sports section in a long while.) That writing was, unquestionably, a piece, demonstrating a carefulness on the part of the writer that virtually demanded the same attention on the reader’s end. In other words, that page was not to be read on the subway Monday morning. Instead, it almost had to be read in the quiet minutes either immediately before or after church when everyone else was busy attending to their own shirt buttons or shoelaces.

My problem with calling writing a piece is that it suggests an arrogance on the writer’s side. To label something as such is to imply luxury, and, therefore, exclusivity. It should not be the goal of any writing, especially in newspapers, to lock out a segment of the readership — writing can be well-crafted while still appealing to the majority of readers.

Furthermore, the writer of a piece will inevitably be more careful with his work, treating every word like it carries a weight heavy enough to sink the whole article and approaching every lead like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. While thinking is a necessity for some long form nonfiction, it is false for almost anything that will ever run in newsprint and the writer’s overly careful treatment of his work will only slow everyone down.* The gravitas of the writer’s mindset, meanwhile, often does not transfer to the reader who only sees a piece of writing that takes itself entirely too seriously and quickly throws the paper in the trash can, where it will soon be buried under the morning’s coffee grinds.

*Another trick to writing that I always wish someone had told me in sixth grade is to just start typing and see where you end up. Often, it will be absolutely nowhere, but the physical act of pounding on keys will lead to the brain eventually manufacturing coherent and useful thoughts.

As a copy editor, I would often take tough headlines and start filling the space with quips or seemingly unrelated words, none of which I planned on actually using but all of which were designed to help my brain better grasp the language that would be necessary for the space and the story. There is an intellectual playfulness that is present in much of the best writing, be it headlines or articles or even pieces, and the best way to reach something approaching it is to begin physically writing.

The final label, and the one that I prefer, is “a story.” As I have written before, I view the journalist’s role, at its most basic level, as telling the stories of modern society. Nothing more, nothing less.

While that can be a heavy burden depending on the subject matter, I believe many people going into journalism are doing so because they believe in the power of the story. By referring to writing as such, our brain subconsciously turns to the novels and long form writing that we’ve read, using them as unconscious cognitive inspiration.

Another reason I believe in stories is the playfulness that I referred to earlier. As journalists, we need to take ourselves and our jobs seriously at all times, from interviewing sources to making sure every fact and name are correct. Being that focused all the time can lead to rapid and overwhelming fatigue. By thinking of writing as a story, though, as opposed to an article or a piece, I have found that I’m more willing to be creative with my language, adding energy to my writing that isn’t there when I’m letting myself be crushed by the weight of a deadline or squinting at my notebook to make sure I have each fact exactly right in the first draft.*

*I must also add that to write journalism as stories is to trust your editors, not only to make sure that you have all the facts correct, but to retain the structure and tone that you have often crafted.

Every writer is familiar with the “show, don’t tell” maxim. Often, though, a journalist’s job is to tell the reader what an event means in the larger scheme of things. By turning to the natural arc of a story and using narrative devices, a journalist can reach a better understanding of what actually happened and better show his audience what the implications of a story are.

The final reason to refer to journalism as stories is perhaps the simplest and, therefore, the most compelling: Humans are natural-born storytellers. We know that from cave walls in France and from Snooki prancing around on MTV. By framing writing in the most natural way possible, hopefully we will be able to convey complicated information in the most accessible way we can.

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