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Liberal, conservative terms can be too broad to mean much

Friday, October 23, 2009 | 4:40 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Join me now in abandoning most liberals and conservatives.

* Code descrambler

 TIF – tax-increment financing.

TDD – transportation development district.

ROI – return on investment.

CINCLANTFLT — Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet


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Some of a journalist’s best friends are brevity and plain language. They serve as protectors against sources who attempt to bloviate or obscure. They are a reader’s armor to repel confusion and boredom. Young copy editors are taught to take a knife to “lacerations” and “contusions”; “cuts” and “bruises” will do in most cases.

But a writer should never abandon clarity.

That’s why I battle against most acronyms and abbreviations as code for insiders. You know what TIF and TDD mean if you’re hip to the verbiage of policy planning. Can you figure out the ROI for a business plan? Only if you know the code.  (I earned my distaste after years of living in a Navy town that was home to CINCLANTFLT.)*  

The words “conservative” and “liberal” suffer a different fate. Everyone knows what they mean, and they mean something different to everyone.

So the editors on the Wichita Eagle copy desk have been instructed to cut those vague words and paste in more specific descriptions. It’s a good idea, and the Missourian should follow that newspaper’s lead.

I learned of this oh-so-sensible approach from a news editor at the Eagle, Lisa McLendon, who spoke to a group of copy editors in Columbia a couple of weeks ago. In an e-mail, she explained:

“For example, William F. Buckley was a conservative, and Pat Robertson is a conservative, and there is not a whole lot of overlap between their theories and views. So what does that label really tell us for someone who is not as well-known?

"As another example, some think tanks advocate for fiscal issues and stay out of social issues. They take a position that could be called fiscally conservative, but it's clearer to say ‘advocates for deficit reduction,’ or ‘advocates for smaller government,’ or whatever it does.

“Likewise, a community group could be called ‘liberal,’ but are the concepts of justice and equality confined only to liberals? It's clearer to say ‘advocates for justice and equality in the community.’”

I pulled up the Web site of the St. Louis Tea Party. (Yes, I know Columbia organized Tea Party events, but I couldn’t find a local site.) The group describes itself this way:

“We believe in small government and dealing with the consequences of your own bad decisions. We utterly reject the notion that the most productive and responsible members of society owe a government-mandated handout to the less productive and irresponsible.”

So a shorthand description might be “a small government advocacy group.” Its members might (or might not) believe in other conservative issues, but that’s not the purpose of the Tea Party.

The Osage Chapter of the Sierra Club might be described as liberal, but a more accurate description would be that the group advocates for government regulation to ensure clean water and air.

I’m not implementing a rule against those two little words of liberal and conservative. Common sense should trump rigid rule. McLendon says the Eagle recommends using either term when the organization describes itself that way. Another smart decision.

Ever pursuing accuracy, McLendon is quick to point out that it was copy desk chief Michael Roehrman and executive editor Sherry Chisenhall who came up with the policy. So you may thank, or blame, them.

I don’t expect the “liberal” and “conservative” to go away. I want your Missourian editors to simply ask, in every instance: Can I be clearer here?

It’s a goal you can hold them, and me, accountable for.

Tom

 

 


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