“If you see an adjective in your news story, shoot it.”

This advice came from the late University of Georgia journalism professor Conrad Fink, one heck of a word sniper. His red ink bloodied my pages, humbling me over every thoughtless word. I remember writing “over the last week” in a story, and he questioned “last.” Did I mean the “final week” on the planet? If not, use “past” week.

I think I might have responded with, “Doesn’t everyone know what I mean?” Maybe, but that’s an assumption, and he taught that journalism should be an ongoing rejection of assumptions. He made it clear that you have to try to be attentive to every word, every assumption if you care to be any good. That’s far easier said than done.

Fink said far too many adjectives project personal opinions, so delete them from your news stories. He was right. A news reporter should avoid adjectives like “wonderful,” “great,” “amazing,” “beautiful,” “disgusting,” pitiful,” or basically any word that holds a value-based opinion from the writer or speaker. Those words are OK in an attributed quote, but ridiculous coming straight from a reporter in a news story. If you try to write objectively for a public audience, you see that, yeah, my idea of “amazing” might be totally different than someone else’s. The language matters. It shows you the difference between news writing and commentary.

And I wonder these days about how many people see such distinctions between objective efforts to write it straight and partisan commentary. Or do most people even care anymore? I don’t know.

These days, pointed commentary is so much more lucrative than the straight story. This is partly the fault of “the media,” which too often seeks financial gain on the cheap — it’s way easier to get opinionated people to fight on screen than to pay for people to go places and actually report what’s happening — but it’s also the fault of people in general who enjoy having their own opinions confirmed by opinionated talk from a supposed “news source” that is increasingly incentivized to give the target audience the opinions they want, regardless of facts. This is certainly a fault of social media, too, which profits off anger and conflict to the detriment of society.

Journalism is endangered today. That’s obvious because of the broken economic structure. Still, I hope the discipline itself will always live. It’s simply the effort to observe and share aspects relevant to life in a reliable manner. It’s just one more method of human communication, not glorious or infallible. Obviously, right? But, as Fink taught, journalism calls for a code of responsible information gathering and sharing so that civil society can function better, regardless of who wins or loses politically. Basically, if you don’t know what’s wrong around you, how can you fix it? And if you don’t know what’s good in your community, how can you appreciate it? This holds social value outside of money matters.

Journalism, as I learned from a really great teacher, is a series of questions, one after another, and most of them should be posed inwardly, not outwardly. What needs to be covered? How? Who do I need to talk to? What do I need to ask? Who is the audience? What do they expect? How do I structure this? What can be cut? What has to be kept? The inner questions go on and on.

But commentary is an entirely different mode of communication, which is frequently aimed at shaping the political battle of the day in favor of a particular team. It is not news! (This column is an opinion, not news. It’s on the opinion page.) But this distinction is not so obvious at times in our culture, which is so soaked in opinions masquerading as news.

The blurring of that news/opinion line holds a severe cost for society, the extinction of more and more shared truths. At our alarming rate of shared truth decay, we’ll end up disagreeing on the validity of arithmetic in a few years. Imagine the ensuing arguments at the cash register. I joke, but still. Where are we actually headed with all this reality fracture between us? How extreme will it get?

As the cynicism knob keeps getting turned up in our culture, we seem to assume now that all news on public matters is binary — either “with us” (the good) or “with them” (the bad), and that every bit of new information either works to our advantage or disadvantage politically, and is thus amplified or ignored accordingly, depending on a person’s cultural allegiance. This means our society as a whole is increasingly less able to truthfully assess itself, which is a huge, shared weakness.

When this happens at a wide scale, as it does now, we are submitting to a mentally corruptive force that diminishes our future. If nothing is true, then anything can be true in our heads. And we are then free to judge others with absolute certainty about exactly how terrible “they” (a totally vague and changing word) are, based on little information or even misinformation. We are free to hate without any self reflection on how that hatred will shape our own well being and identity, which it certainly does.

It’s been many years since I sat in Conrad Fink’s class learning that journalism should be serious business, not a joke. And the journalism world he knew has been eviscerated in the age of the web.

But humanity needs disciplined modes of transferring information in reliable fashion. “The press,” “the media” are vilified. And there are so many problems that I see, too, which are rooted in the loss of economic viability for sober sharing in favor of the whiskey of opinions that leaves many drunk on hate.

I don’t feel this is permanent. I don’t believe our fracturing is some final state. I think things will get better in this regard. But I wonder what will come before society corrects itself.

I firmly believe so many of those adjectives we so freely put on other people’s foreheads without much thought deserve Fink’s red pen. He was a verb guy, not an adjective one.

So I propose we focus on verbs like help, love, praise, care. There’s plenty in those verbs to keep everyone busy and away from the war of adjectives, which can stop our hearts and minds from doing something good right in front of us. I took a red pen to some of this, but I’ll leave that in.

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at zach@mainstreetnews.com.

(1) comment

Virginia Moss

Perhaps if more people could read or hear about the principles of journalism in detail, maybe there would be more respect for it these days. This opinion piece gives a glimpse of that. Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? At least three reliable sources for each question or it doesn't get published.

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