The Sins of Leaving Something Unsaid

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 4, 2005

All newspapers commit sins of commission, but I also fret about sins of omission. People or groups not identified fully. Important information left out. Someone who wasn't called.

I think readers want as much context as they can get when they read a Post story. It doesn't help readers when an organization, a business or an individual is not fully identified or if a person or group is criticized without their counter-balancing comment or an indication that it was sought.

Sometimes it's just a number. For instance, a Nov. 23 story on Iraq said the Pentagon "tentatively plans to reduce the number of U.S. forces early next year by as many as three combat brigades." Several readers pointed out that nowhere did the story say how many soldiers are in a brigade.

Scott Vance, the national security editor, said that providing a new bottom-line troop total was complicated by not knowing the number of associated support troops that would be cut along with the combat brigades, each of which has about 3,500 soldiers. He said the article should have explained that more clearly.

Several Post stories were written about Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) and the resolution he offered in the House on withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Most of the stories used the word "immediate." I received a number of calls and e-mails -- perhaps politically motivated -- saying his statement did not call for immediate withdrawal.

An editor and I checked Murtha's Web site. While Murtha did use the word "immediately'' in his news release, both his House resolution and his news release had qualifiers. This was Murtha's language in the resolution: "The deployment of United States forces in Iraq, by direction of Congress, is hereby terminated and the forces involved are to be redeployed at the earliest practicable date."

The news release said his plan calls for the Bush administration "to immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces."

While "immediately" wasn't wrong, it wasn't quite right, either. It would have been better to say "at the earliest practicable date" somewhere in the stories or to add the qualifiers.

Defining groups as "activist" doesn't always cut it, either. What is an environmental activist? It could have a host of different meanings.

Reader Blaine Charak of the District asked what The Post's guidelines are on using the word "activist." He said he has seen the word used in Post stories without elaboration on what it meant.

Here's what The Post's stylebook says: "Be careful about the labels attached to people. References to civic leaders, AIDS activists, political activists, etc. are used much too freely. These are not designations for which there are settled criteria and using them too easily can render them meaningless. Activist is particularly bothersome. Who defines the category?"

Another omission I find troublesome is a reference to an organization without identifying information. Washington has dozens of think tanks with as many agendas. Most are "nonpartisan" to obtain their tax status as nonprofit groups.


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