- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

Plain speaking

Dan Kubiske has a lesson he is trying to drum into the heads of the students taking his journalism course at George Mason University: Use simple words.

Invited to speak to Mr. Kubiske’s class last week, I found myself flashing back to one of my own earliest experiences as a journalist as I listened to Mr. Kubiske stressing the point.

It was the late 1970s and I had been selling some freelance articles to the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto. There was a city editor at the time who could have stepped straight out of an old movie, with rolled-up sleeves, a green eyeshade, a crusty take-no-nonsense manner and a heart of gold. And I still remember him barking at me: “Never use a long word when a short word will do.”

It is a lesson that every veteran reporter and editor has had to learn at one time or another. Young reporters, inevitably, try to demonstrate to their editors and readers how clever they are by showing off their vocabularies. And experienced editors, invariably, yell at them and tell them to use shorter words.

The point is not that we think our readers are idiots. On the contrary, newspaper readers tend to be among the better-educated members of society. And at a newspaper like this one located in the United States’ capital we are blessed with one of the smartest and most sophisticated audiences in the world.

We are well aware that our readership includes White House officials, members of Congress and their staffs, leading public servants at other government agencies, diplomats from virtually every country in the world, analysts from the many local think tanks, and professors and students at the region’s universities and colleges.

We love these readers and search daily for the kinds of stories that will keep them coming back. But we do not want to stop there. A newspaper is intended to be a mass medium, and we want to reach out to the largest possible audience. And that means using language that just about anyone can understand.

A 3,000-mile putt

That may sound like we are “dumbing down” our coverage, but if we do our jobs properly, that is not what we are doing at all. I tell all our foreign desk reporters regularly, “We want to simplify the language but not the ideas.”

In just about any specialized discipline, whether it is medicine or diplomacy or computer technology, practitioners tend to develop a special language words, phrases and abbreviations that have unique meanings they only understand.

There are good reasons why this happens; it allows those who know the language to communicate quickly and efficiently among themselves. But such language also has the effect of shutting non-initiates out of the club.

This is where the journalist steps in. Our job is to learn the arcane languages, talk to the practitioners and get them to explain the ideas. Then we must find ways to pass those ideas along to our readers in everyday language that non-initiates can understand.

I recall, some years ago, reading a short book in which the theoretical physicist Albert Einstein tried to explain his theory of relativity to nonscientists. He used simple metaphors, like the example of two speeding trains running on parallel tracks. I can’t claim to have perfectly understood relativity when I finished, but I did come away with an appreciation that even an idea as complicated as relativity could be explained in plain language.

Another of my favorite examples came from an article written some years ago by Al Rossiter Jr., who was at the time the chief space and science writer for United Press International. He was trying to explain the technical achievement of a space shot in which a vehicle had been sent into orbit around one of the outer planets. He said it was like putting a golf ball in New York and having it drop into the hole in Los Angeles.

I like to tell our reporters: Write like that.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djoneswashingtontimes.com.

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