Kudos to the Los Angeles Times for tackling one of my pet peeves in its latest ethics policy. The policy is the subject of a Poynter post here.
Superlatives are a bane of the modern world. Actually, they were probably a bane of the ancient world as well, now that I think about it. (“Marcus Agrippa’s pantheon is the greatest building of all time,” said Augustus…)
It’s one thing for a politician to proclaim some new program the “biggest” or the “most important” but it’s another for us to pass it along. We are supposed to check such claims and not mindlessly pass them along in the manner of a stenographer.
Specifically, the L.A. Times policy says:
Superlatives such as “biggest,” “worst” and “most” should be employed only when the writer has proof. It is the responsibility of assigning editors and copy editors to challenge all questionable claims. The burden of proof rests with the writer; it is not the desk’s responsibility to prove the writer wrong.
It is unacceptable to hedge an unverified or unverifiable assertion with words such as “arguably” or “perhaps.” Our job is to report what is true, not what might be.
Can I get an Amen? …
Many, many times I find myself, as an editor, looking up things in a dull and sad effort to prove wrong a writer who is a friend and a colleague. That is a waste of time and not the highest and best use of a newspaper editor. Besides, I just don’t want to do it.
If you say the baseball pitch is “unique” or that the microprocessor is the “smallest ever made,” please have a ready answer when I ask you, “Are you sure about that?”