Wick Communications

Choosing your words carefully

In Opinion pages on 3 Jun 2010 at 10:13 pm

Several of us wrote rather strident editorials of late. And those of us who did heard from readers who didn’t think much of our opinions.

In Montrose, editorial writers tackled the BP mess. In Nogales, Publisher Manuel Nogales shared with readers some of the more vitriolic letters he has gotten just because the name of the newspaper is the “International” and features a Mexican as well as an American flag. Here in Half Moon Bay, I posed a bunch of questions about a landlord who fails to provide clean water to his migrant farm workers. Lord knows, I’m hearing from those who think these laborers ought to just high-tail it back to from where they came. And in Wasilla, an editorial about Sarah Palin’s new neighbor elicited response from around the country and was featured on CBS, Huffington Post and the Drudge Report…

Writing newspaper opinion pieces has never been for the faint of heart. We are paid to stake out a position that we think is right – even if going in we know that won’t be popular. I would never, ever suggest that we shy away from taking a moral stand in the face of certain blowback. We should lead difficult discussion. And we must, if we are to continue to have vibrant opinion pages.

Having said that, the experience we had in Nogales and Half Moon Bay and Wasilla points to the power of our words. That’s why we must choose them carefully.

Personally, I find that it’s almost always best to write editorials in advance. Let them stew in their own juices. Taste them after they’ve cooled a bit.

Let me give you an example. My editorial was a series of uncomfortable questions following a county finding of unsafe water at a local migrant farmworker camp. Originally, it included this line:

Who cares if the good and fair farmers across the county face more burdensome scrutiny in the months to come as a result of conditions at a single notorious farm?

After a day to think about it, I removed the word “notorious.” I don’t think it added anything material to my point and would only serve to distract from that point. Here’s another one:

Who cares if the farms’ owners have been cited repeatedly over the years for dozens of housing code violations?

After my final reading, I removed the word “repeatedly.” I realized that, while it was true the farm had been hit with dozens of violations this year and equally true it had been cited before, I realized I didn’t know if it had repeatedly been cited for dozens of offenses, if that makes sense.

My point is that if you choose your words carefully, particularly when you know going in that you are about to tweak someone pretty good, you are less likely to have trouble either in the court of public opinion or those other courts, the ones with expensive lawyers.

Clay

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  1. I note the cover of Michael Gartner’s book about writing editorials, and the importance of edits in society. The book is outstanding and I highly recommend it. But, as a past business partner of Gartner’s, buy me a beverage some time and I will share the gap between the real and perceived ethics of the guy.

  2. Ummmm! Editorial stew … tasty!
    Deb Hershon

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