Monday, November 17, 2014

Jargon makes the world go round

One of the occupational hazards of being a journalist is drowning in jargon.
We have our own jargon in the newsroom and reporters -- much to their editors' dismay often begin speaking or writing in the jargon of those they cover.

Newspapers themselves are very jargon driven.

For instance, most members of the public who've heard the term probably think the first paragraph of a news story is the "lead." Actually, it's the lede.

A story that totally flatters its subject is a "puff piece." One that takes a more analytic view of an issue, examining not just what happened, but what it all means, is "think piece" or a "thumbsucker" or, due to the days that newspapers usually have the space for them,"a weekender."

Reporters learn the difference between "on background," "not for attribution"  and "off the record."  Background basically means the source is educating you on how something works, but doesn't want his name or his agency's name mentioned. Not for attribution means "you can't say I said that," leading to the use of "highly placed sourses." Off the record means, "you can't use this." Off the record information is more useful than you might think, because it's easier to get someone to go "on the record" about when you already seem to know about it.

I once had an editor who said that if there was one thing he hoped the general public never new about the newsroom it was the kind of black humor we engaged in. That leads to slogans like  "if it bleeds it leads" and newsroom comments like "Did anyone die? It's a better story if someone died."


"Man in the street" stories are those where a reporter goes out and talks to random folks in the community about what they think about an issue in the news. Reporters generally hate man in the street stories. In Williamsburg I go to Duke of Gloucester Street for man in the street stories. When I worked in Lynchburg, we used to call them "Man in the mall" stories because that was the easiest place to find crowds of pedestrians.

A "sob sister" story (this term is dieing out) is a feature meant to tug at the heartstrings --  kids with incurable diseases, poverty stricken moms struggling to raise their children right while working three jobs -- they usually run in the Lifestyles section, which newspapers were still calling the "Women's pages," well into the 1980s.

The most likely reporters to get sucked in by their sources and start spouting jargon are crime reporters.

Cover police for awhile and you start calling the defendant the "perpetrator" or "perp." Editors always remove this from copy, but the terminology has infected them as well. Because when the police bring the accussed to court, that's a "perp walk" and if you can get a "perp shot" of that, it will illustrate the story well. The newest piece of cop jargon that the media can't quit using is "person of interest." It means "suspect," except that it uses more space.

Once the case gets to court, there's more jargon. Court reporters end up knowing a lot of things that the average person does not, so editors have to make sure you explain things like "Alford Plea" (I don't admit I'm guilty but I admit that you have enough evidence to convict me. So let's cut a deal and save the taxpayers the cost of a trial), the difference between malicious wounding and unlawful wounding (One requires that the accused actually have malicious intent.) and the exception to the hearsay rule (past statements of the accused are not hearsay).

The legislature is also a great source of jargon. Covering  the legislature, reporters learn the difference between P.B.I. (Passed by indefinitly. "We killed your bill with extreme prejudice"), tabled ("We killed your bill gently") and carried over to the next session ("We've sentenced your bill to a lingering death.")

Once, on the "Night of Long Knives" -- the last scheduled meeting of the Courts of Justice Committee before the deadline for acting on bills -- a delegate said, "Mr. Chairman, I notice that we have a lot of bills that have been laid on the table. I move that we throw the table out the window."

Veterans of the legislature also know why there are almost no "No" votes cast in judicial elections in the legislature, no matter how bad the nominee is. Dates from when the vast majority of the General Assembly were lawyers. No one wants to tick off a judge he may end up facing in court. So, the custom is, that if you oppose the nominee, you just don't vote. Since it requires 51 votes in the  House and 21 votes in the Senate to elect a judge, an abstention is the same as voting "No," without being nasty about it.

The session of the General Assembly also have their own language.

For instance "Mr. Speaker, I wonder if the learned gentleman from the other side would  yield for question?" means "Mr. Speaker, if that idiot would shut up, I'd explain to him what his bill  really does."

Questions come in two flavors -- regular questions and "friendly" questions. Friendly questions are generally much more hostile than regular questions.

Amendments also come in flavors. In this case though a "friendly amendment" really is friendly, it's an attempt to make the bill better. An  unfriendly amendment is generally meant to make the bill so bad even an idiot wouldn't vote for it.

There are also "technical amendments" those are amendments that just fix typos or correct wrong code section cites, etc. Most are truly technical, but it pays to read them through none the less. They are written by politicians after all.

The Senate, is less fun than the House of Delegates but has its own peculiar customs. One is that, if two senators represent different parts of the same jurisdiction they are called "the senior Senator from..." and "the junior Senator from...." (I don't know what they do in Fairfax, which I'm sure has more than two senators). Nothing wrong with that. Although I often felt it was rude to the late Sen. Yvonne Miller to call  her the "senior Senate from Norfolk."

Currently I cover a municipal government and tourism. And I've had to learn fresh sets of jargon. I now know more about zoning than anyone who only owns one house needs to know. Houses, of course, are right out. What's in is "mixed-use developments".-- that means you live at the shopping center. I also know the difference between "by right" development (that's development that follows all the zoning rules) and SUP (special use permit) development (breaks all the very specific rules we set up, but if the project is  big enough we'll be happy to ignore them). I also have to deal with budgets fairly often, but budget language at the local level isn't all that much different than at the state level, except  that there are fewer zeroes.

The tourism beat has taught me more about the hotel industry than I ever wanted to know. What' s a healthy occupancy rate for hotel room nights? Close to 60 percent, which Williamsburg hasn't reached in years. I also have learned terms like RevPAR. That's revenue per available room, sort of a basic measure of the health of the hotel industry.

This ran on a lot longer than I wanted it to,  but I had fun.

I leave you now with this :


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