Why laying off copy editors makes us all dumber and less free

Why laying off copy editors makes us all dumber and less free December 12, 2015

Yes, this is personal for me in that I used to work as a newspaper copy editor before getting laid off (along with tens of thousands of my peers) because the struggling print media industry decided that copy editors were an unnecessary luxury they could no longer afford.

But this isn’t only about me. The absence of newspaper copy editors hurts us all.

Jay Livingston helps to explain why in a bleak Pacific Standard piece on “Cop-Speak for Shooting a Suspect.” Livingston notes that whenever police departments commit violence to people, they also commit violence to language and thought:

The police do not shoot people. Not any more. Apparently, the word shoot has been deleted from the cop-speak dictionary.

IngsocA recently released video shows a Chicago cop doing what most people would describe as shooting a kid. Sixteen times. That’s not the way the Chicago Police Department puts it.

Here’s the Chicago Tribune: “A ‘preliminary statement’ from the police News Affairs division, sent to the media early the next morning, said that after he had refused orders to drop the knife, McDonald ‘continued to approach the officers’ and that as a result ‘the officer discharged his weapon, striking the offender.'”

… The police don’t shoot people. They discharge their weapons striking individuals, usually suspects or offenders. A Google search for “officer discharge weapon striking” returns 3.6 million hits.

Worse, the press often doesn’t even bother to translate but instead prints the insipid bureaucratic language of the police department verbatim.

This isn’t just Orwellian doublespeak and horrifically irresponsible journalism. It’s also Very Bad Writing. That’s two reasons that this incoherent babble of “officer discharge weapon striking” should never, ever appear in any newspaper, unless it’s to highlight and criticize the ridiculous language and thinking of the police.

A reporter’s first task is to tell us WWWWH&W — to answer the basic questions who? what? when? where? how? and why?

This language fails to do that. This language prevents and precludes that. It doesn’t only prevent the reporter from reporting the answers to those questions, it prevents everybody involved — the police themselves, the reporter, all the readers of the story — from thinking those questions and from realizing they haven’t been answered.

So “an officer discharged his weapon, striking …” fails the most basic test of Reporting 101.

And, as Livingston says, nothing like journalism is happening when the press “prints the insipid bureaucratic language of the police department verbatim.” That’s not reporting or journalism. That’s dictation.

Newspapers used to employ editors to ensure that reporters were actually reporting and not just taking dictation. But those editors were also, at a more basic level, copy editors — people who checked and double-checked grammar and punctuation and spelling. Part of their job, in other words, was to keep readers safe from garbled, meaningless, passive-voice abominations like this form of cop-speak. Such language isn’t written clearly and thus cannot be read clearly. Read too much of it and you’ll cease to be able to think clearly.

That is, of course, a feature, not a bug, of this form of cop-speak. It’s a way of writing, speaking, and thinking that separates nouns from verbs, and therefore separates causes from effects, and therefore separates power from responsibility.

So it doesn’t just make us all less intelligent — less capable of articulating meaningful thought. It also makes us all less free.

For a withering, mordantly hilarious take on the way that this abuse of language contributes to the abuse of people, don’t miss Vijith Assar’s “Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar.” Assar begins with the old typist’s boilerplate sentence, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” and offers a step-by-step clinic in how to transform that sentence’s clarity into a meaningless puddle of goo like, “Speed was involved in a jumping-related incident while a fox was brown.”

The goal of such constructions, Assar says, is: “the ultimate in passive voice: the past exonerative tense, so named because culpability is impossible when actions no longer exist.”

Read all the way to the end. The punchline packs a punch.


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