An old friend, who isn’t in media, pointed something out the other night that floored me (more than the beer we were having): We reporters may have become too engrossed with style and flair that we’ve taken for granted that readers know what we are talking about.
She said this while I was in the middle of a story about a former provincial governor accused of graft. “What’s graft?,” she asked, throwing me for a loop.
The Office of the Ombudsman was one of the agencies I covered for Sun.Star so I do know what graft is, and what corrupt practices fall under it, but couldn’t quite explain it right away. It had gotten so it was just one of those words that I use, like “veto” and “plenary session” and “second reading” and “three-day rule”. Things that have become basic to me but did require some research when I was starting out close to five years ago.
My friend isn’t stupid and she got the concept, as well as how bills become laws, when I explained further but she did remind me that people will give up in the middle of a story if things get too confusing or boring. And then, whoever wrote it would have failed.
We do try, though. Especially those among us who actually went to J-school instead of winging it because I knew some words. We try to put stories in as much context as we can and explain issues as well as we can. I don’t think the problem lies there.
It may be in our usage of these words that, through daily use, have become as normal as,say, “toothbrush” and the desire to seem like a smart writer in front of colleagues.
Part 1 of the challenge she gave was to always remember that the typical reader might not know anything at all about an issue. This, I suspect, was one of those lessons everyone else learned in Journalism 101 and that I sort of also know but forget. That challenge has been accepted.
Part 2 of the challenge, and this is something that still scares me, is to let go of vanities like style and skill and just lay facts out for readers. That will require, if I am to walk my talk that this profession is a public service, of sometimes giving up writing in English altogether.
If the idea is to give as much people as much information as possible to they can form their own opinions about issues, then complex ideas might be better broken down and expressed better in Filipino, or even in Taglish.
After all, she said, professionals and businessmen already have reporters writing for and at them while few tabloid writers and AM news reporters have the time and energy to really explain things to an audience that might need the added context most*. It’s an interesting point and has become the seed of a project that I hope to start this year.
*There are many fine tabloid and radio reporters in the industry. They have tighter schedules, though, and less space on their papers, less airtime as well as troubles of their own that can get in the way of explaining an issue as much as they would want to.