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We must be able to change cloudy information to clear

October 03, 2004|by BILL KOHLER

One of the unwritten rules in journalism is as follows: If we don't understand it, how can we expect the readers to understand it?

Therein lies one of the greatest challenges of this profession.

Certainly, thousands of newspaper stories solve this equation day in and day out, but it's the work that goes into accomplishing this goal that sometimes amazes me.

The problem and the challenge are not always with the reporters and editors.

Many times, the source is the enigma.

In this day of quick e-mails, PDAs, videophones and cell phones, the art of good communication sometimes is lost when a speaker or official source opens his mouth or starts typing.

Take a recent Chambersburg (Pa.) Borough Council meeting where a consultant briefed ... er ... apprised council members about the pros and cons of running broadband Internet lines over the borough's power lines.

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Don Aines, our Chambersburg bureau reporter, said the consultant, while very knowledgeable, was speaking in amps, bmps and mhz.

While the story was relatively innocuous in the giant scheme of things, Aines said it was one of the more difficult stories he's ever had to write in his many years in the news-gathering business.

Aines did his usual fine job of getting to the bottom line of what the source was saying and explaining its impact on readers.

A recent press release from an area company contained this gem:

"Adjusted to eliminate the impact of integration expense, earnings for the fourth quarter were (number) per diluted share versus (number) in the prior year. Unadjusted reported earnings on a GAAP basis for the fourth quarter were (number) per diluted share versus (number) in the prior year."

Now I suppose a chief financial officer or anyone with an economics degree would say those two sentences are perfectly clear.

Not so to the common Joe.

Once again, our reporter took the information and whittled it down to what really was important.

Last month, the Hagerstown Suns announced they had severed ties with the San Francisco Giants and were signing with the New York Mets. Herald-Mail Senior Reporter Andrew Schotz did not write a story filled with baseball jargon like A, AA and nicknames and in-the-know terms. He took what could have been a complex story to the nonsports folk and made it understandable and easy to read.

Mission accomplished.

And I could not address this subject without mentioning our fine sources in the academic and legal worlds.

During my tenure as a city editor in Wisconsin, the local school districts would send press release after press release and agenda after agenda with words and phrases that only people with Ed.D's and Ph.D's could comprehend.

Police and court reporters, meanwhile, always have their hands full with words such as actors, Alford pleas, nolo contendre, stet docket and habeas corpus.

Whew.

The ability to translate the jargon and eduspeak into easy-to-understand English words and phrases is what separates the good reporters from the average ones.

So what's the moral of the story?

If government officials, educators, public relations professionals and police officers really want to get their message across accurately and clearly, skip the jargon that only people in their professions will understand.

Speak clearly, write concisely and keep it simple.

We'll continue to do our part, but every bit helps - not just for the messenger, but for the receiver as well.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State Editor of The Herald-Mail. You may reach him at 800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or send e-mail to billk@herald-mail.com.

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