A story in Tuesday’s New York Times focused on an audit of the New York State Education Department. A line from the story: “The new audit, however, takes aim at the Education Department itself.” On the same day, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story on a new plan to stave off budgetary pain in the Philadelphia School District. A line from the story: “[The plan] also takes aim at city charter schools, which currently enroll nearly 50,000 students.”
Now is not the best time to mix rifle-range imagery with news reporting, especially if the topic is education. A gunman barged into a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last Friday and killed 20 children and six adults. Perhaps Americans have never been quite as aware of their relationship to guns as they are today.
That’s certainly the case here. Over the past few days, the Erik Wemple Blog has been a jittery, self-editing wreck. Drafting headlines and paragraphs is turning into a halting experience. Piers Morgan blasts gun-rights advocate… NO! Piers Morgan snipes at guest…Delete!
A look at the record of this space shows little hesitancy about merging the language of guns with that of politics and media: “Fox News’s Judith Miller takes aim at NBC.” “Author Joe McGinniss’s new book ‘The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin’ takes direct aim at its subject.” Speaking about Karl Rove, we wrote, “President Obama merely kept his coalition from ‘shrinking too much,’ he snipes.”
Such are the temptations of Web writing. The Internet is nothing if not a platform for conflict. There’s always someone bashing someone. Or slamming someone. Or eviscerating someone. Or hammering someone. Or criticizing someone.
And when reporters tire of those terms, they follow their misfiring synapses to a ballistic metaphor or five. To write that “so and so took aim” or that “so and so blasted” requires exertion of the hands, not of the brain. Notes Phil Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at the New York Times: “I think a lot of those gunfire metaphors are clichés that are good to avoid anyway.”
The Associated Press (AP), another organization that gives some thought to copy standards, needn’t issue any fresh guidance in the aftermath of Newtown. Back in August, the wire service issued a memo about how to convey campaign coverage, and it included this passage:
war lingo — use criticized instead of attacked, or choose a better verb to describe what the candidate is doing, i.e., challenging, doubting, etc. Also avoidable: launch an assault, take aim, open fire, bombard.
AP Deputy Managing Editor for Standards Tom Kent lays out the thinking behind the rules: “We’ve long felt it’s a good idea to avoid weapons metaphors when we’re not talking about real weapons. Even beyond evoking memories of violent events, we think frequent use of these terms in non-military situations smacks of overdramatization and hyping,” writes Kent via e-mail.
“It can also be distracting,” continues Kent. “If we’re reporting on serious political or social issues, a constant din of ‘blasting’ and ‘opened fire’ adds little to the discussion. It’s hard to make firm rules and such terminology will continue to pop up, but it’s something we do think and communicate with the staff about.”
Bolded text added to underscore truth.
In a piece yesterday on New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, the New York Post, never a practitioner of linguistic sensitivity, published this line: “The offseason began with teammates sniping at Sanchez.” In the Globe and Mail (Canada), John Doyle wrote a piece on the media’s record in Newtown that featured this pivot point: “As the weekend unfolded, the sniping at the media and the entertainment industry began and grew fierce.” When asked about the choice of words and the topical backdrop, Doyle responded, “If you mean, did I not think ‘sniping’ was directly connected to the shooting, no I didn’t. It was not ‘a sniper’ involved. I used ‘sniping’ at the media in the old-fashioned and true sense of what sniping means – sneering, taunting from the sidelines.”
A Los Angeles Times headline from Monday uses the reporting-on-gun-companies exemption: “Gun firms’ shares are in line of fire.”
Editors here at The Post are on the lookout for unseemly adjacencies. “I’ve recently asked the copy desk to pay special attention to words like ‘target’ and ‘aim,’ especially in the gun-policy stories we package with Newtown tragedy,” notes Jesse Lewis, the paper’s multi-platform editing chief. “The terms are so prevalent that there may be a slip up like one where we did have ‘target’ used as a specific focus on the problem, but our intention is to keep that from happening.”
Patrick LaForge, editor for news presentation at the New York Times, says that problematic ballistic imagery is “already covered by our warnings against hackneyed writing” and so he hasn’t issued any new directives since Friday. Gun metaphors, says LaForge, “permeate our culture so much that they’re something we turn to” almost reflexively, he says.
When asked about the “taking aim” language in the recent education story, LaForge responds, “Is that necessarily gun imagery? Plenty of sports involve aim, for example.”
Like any classic copy-desk matter, this one is open to debate. Andrew Beaujon, a former copy editor and current media reporter at Poynter.org (and friend), takes on “taking aim”: “I suppose it could be archery or slingshot imagery. A camera metaphor wouldn’t seem to work in this case unless they’re documenting the Education Department.”