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Semantics can strengthen reporting

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by Stan Zoller, MJE

When President Trump was hospitalized recently with COVID-19, it was, to say the least, interesting to watch the briefings from the medical professionals attending to him.

It was evident their words were chosen carefully – so carefully I couldn’t help but think of the late S.I. Hayakawa. 

Hayakawa was a professor of English, president of San Francisco State University and then a U.S. Senator from California. Known as a stunning semanticist, the oft out-spoken Hayakawa once said “Definitions, contrary to popular opinion, tell us nothing about things. They only describe people’s linguistic habits; that is, they tell us what noises people make under what conditions.”

I found this appropriate during the news coverage of the POTUS’ hospitalization. Of specific interest were the briefings by Sean Conley, D.O, who serves as the President’s physician.

Taking a cue from Hayakawa’s “Definitions, contrary to popular opinion, tell us nothing about things” comment, I was perturbed when Conley would say the President was in “stable” condition or his vital signs were “stable.”

Reporters need to probe more so the information they are providing is specific. As a former medical reporter and health care media relations professional, I avoided the use of “stable” at all cost. This was based on guidelines established by a local health care organization on how to address patient conditions.

In general, they were critical, serious, fair, good. Each carried a brief description that generally explained contributing factors to a patient’s condition.

One thing was cited – avoid the use of “stable” because, After all, you can be stable in critical condition. Theoretically, when you’re dead – you’re in stable condition.

However, health-care reporting isn’t the only time journalists should invoke the ghost of S.I. Hayakawa. Any quote should be scrutinized so its meaning is clear and understood.

However, health-care reporting isn’t the only time journalists should invoke the ghost of S.I. Hayakawa. Any quote should be scrutinized so its meaning is clear and understood.

It not only provides for accurate reporting, but can provide a safeguard to accusations that a story was misleading. For example, if you covering labor negotiations and one of the arbiters say negotiations are “meaningful,” it’s a good idea to check with both sides of the bargaining table to ascertain if talks are “meaningful” for both sides.

If there are industry guidelines, as there are in health care, those standards should be the baseline by which you are explaining terminology. The source of those guidelines should be cited in your reporting as well.

The bottom line is this – strong quotes are essential for good reporting. Strong quotes that are well explained are essential for exceptional reporting.

To tweak Hayakawa’s comment, “Definitions, contrary to popular opinion, tell us nothing about things…” a step further, definitions will tell readers a lot about things.

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