The Weight of the Word

I respect words; what they mean and how they should be used.

That was pretty much my entire spiel for my job interview at the Manila Times. I passed but they were only looking for a correspondent at the time and pay for that does not correspond with my need for money to stay alive. Also, I had already been hired as a reporter for Sun.Star and, as most recently-hired employees, took their code of ethics and other motherhood statements seriously.

But the basic sentiment remains. I respect the power that words have, and believe they should be used properly. Doing that, of course, requires learning what words mean, and could mean.

Tower of Babel, M.C. Escher (1928) (Wikipedia)

This usually means I am the last on my team to send in stories because I often have to check words I am not sure about.  It took me half an hour, for example, to look up “behest,” learn what it meant in the context of a loan, and then try to explain that without slipping into tautology. It is often worth it.

The difference between the right word and almost the right word–as I like to quote my third-year high school Geometry textbook quoting Mark Twain–is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

Finding the right word isn’t always that easy, though. The clash between the Philippine Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Basilan earlier this month is one example. In the aftermath of the encounter–and with reports coming in of more ambushes and encounters that left Army men dead–others in the media called it a massacre and a blood bath.

Although both describe the firefight that killed 19 soldiers (many of whom reportedly had their pleas for mercy ignored by the MILF) well, the words tend to inflame. I went the other way and began describing it as an “incident,” which, in hindsight, was playing it too safe.

What, after all, is an incident? Some diplomat snubbing another is an incident.   Actors engaging in drunken fisticuffs is an incident. In some offices, a lost stapler is an incident, and requires the filing of an incident report. By resorting to so bland a word, I had downgraded the deaths (and reported mutilation) of 19 brave men. I had unwittingly made their deaths incidental.

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Nobody Dast Blame This Man

I like to say that being a reporter is my dream job, but that is a lie.

Previously, I have wanted to be (sometimes at the same time):

1. A lawyer

2. A National Bureau of Investigation agent

3. A lawyer-policeman

4. An archivist

5. A seaman

6. A soldier

7. Very briefly, a porn star

All this was while I was in college. In high school, I wanted to be a diplomat and ticked European Studies on my Ateneo college exam form. I passed but we couldn’t afford the fees, so I went to UP instead and proceeded to squander my inheritance, but that is a story for some other time.

But being  a reporter is one of the earliest dreams from my childhood. I used to write short stories on my day, stick them a wall in our house, and sign them Reporter de Santos. Simple stuff, really, and probably libelous. Like my brother wet the bed (he was a baby) or broke the electric fan, or fell down the stairs, which was pretty self-evident when it happened.  I didn’t even know what a reporter was at the time. I mean, not really. But that was the dream.

And that’s why even though I’m poor and alone, and owe the Quezon City government tens of thousands in real estate tax, I’m thankful that I am where I am. Which, admittedly, isn’t much compared to what I could have been.  I could be with the Inquirer, or Star, or some other paper that people in Manila know about. Since we’re dreaming, I could be writing for The Economist and wowing grad students with my knowledge, but I’m not. And that’s probably a little disappointing, but not really that much. I regret not being famous or having perks and gadgets, but that’s about it.

The bottom line is I’m a reporter for a paper (or, all right, a web site) that people read. I have a relatively stable job with minimal hassles and colleagues who can go toe-to-toe with any team from any of the other papers (except probably in actual combat).

At eating contests, also

Yeah, it could be better. But for a fuck up like me, it could be a whole lot worse.*

* I used to transcribe game shows for a living, so.

Field Note 04: An actual field note

Three years into being a reporter, I am still every bit an amateur, if not more.

I have learned, for example, that my stock knowledge is, more often than not,  old stock and needs replacing with fresh ideas and new ways of thinking. And that is why when senior reporters talk, I take notes as often as I can without offending them.

Above is a sample of notes taken in between beers, which, apparently, is the currency of choice among people who work in journalism. A lot of it is common sense, really.   Know your beat inside and out. Offer insight instead of just output, etc.

Sometimes, it is common sense couched in a Bible verse:

Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. (Proverbs 4:7)

Quoted to me by an atheist reporter who got it from Forbes magazine.