Monday, August 15, 2022
Aug. 15, 2022

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Press Talk: Hey, words do matter

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I was pretty busy a few days ago, grooming the bocce ball court, pinching the flowers off my basil plant, checking the temperature every five minutes.

Hey, I’m retired.

But then — while rummaging through the endless gunk on the web — I came across a news story that struck me as, well odd. And it got me to thinking on how words matter. I mean, they really matter.

I suspect most of us understand that point in a general sense. But in today’s information inundation, too often words come out as a whirlwind.

OK, back to this story I came across. Essentially it’s what we call in the newspaper business a police blotter story. When I first began as a reporter, police blotter stories were my bread-and-butter.

Sure, you occasionally get the murder or big mayhem story. But for the most part cops reporters write about car crashes, shed fires and petty crime. If you are looking for examples of police blotter stories, just watch any local TV news station. You can count them yourself but I’d bet 75 percent of their news are these mindless police blotter stories. That’s because they are extremely simple to do, take virtually no time and are often visual.

But back to how words matter.

In a Florida newspaper I was reading I came across a police blotter story that used the word “escorted.”

Now when you think of the word “escorted,” what comes to mind? What first came to me was what most of us did in our high school days: Escorting someone to the prom. It’s usually the guy, being a gentleman, escorting his date to the car, then escorting her into the ballroom. That makes sense, right?

If the word “escort” involved law enforcement, it might be about police helping someone. Let’s say a woman was about to deliver a baby in her car. The police might give her an escort to the hospital.

But here’s how the word was used in the police blotter story I came across:

“When (she) continued to ignore the deputy’s commands, the deputy escorted her to the ground.”

Oh my!

Look, I’m not trying to dispute that deputies sometimes have to get physical with uncooperative folks. That happens quite often. And although I suspect — percentage-wise — men are much more likely to be uncooperative than women, everyone can, ah, have their moments.

No, my beef is with using the word “escorted” to describe the action.

If the incident wasn’t too violent, the phrase “taken down” makes more sense to me. Or how about the word “brought?” If the action was more violent, “slammed” could be used. But when the word “escorted” is used, a scene like the following weirdly flashes in my mind:

“Ma’am, you’re being a bit uncooperative. Would it be OK if I escorted you to the ground?”

“Why, that’s very thoughtful of you, officer. I would very much appreciate it.”

We all know that didn’t happen.

• • •

I asked a few law enforcement types what they thought about this usage of “escorted.”

“Not commonly used vernacular but maybe sometimes,” was one response.

“The use of ‘escorted’ is proper police jargon for defensive tactics when an officer uses physical force to take someone to the ground,” was another.

OK, fair enough. But simply because this is considered “proper police jargon” doesn’t make it right for news stories. Why? Well — and I feel this is the key point — public officials often try to manipulate what’s at play by choosing words in their best interest.

Clearly both political parties do this, although former President Donald Trump brought strange word usage to an whole new level. Again, these folks know it’s in their best interest to paint situations in a favorable light.

So how does this example I’m using get into a newspaper? Remember, this is police blotter stuff. A chump change story. No one is going to spend much time on it. And with newsroom staffing the way it is, even less time will be spent. That doesn’t make it right, of course. But reality is an unforgiving master.

So … knowing the circumstances, do you think there is a finger to be pointed? And if so, at whom? You can talk amongst yourself to decide.

For me, all I really want to say is … words matter.

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