Category Archives: Society

Content questions: is the human element worth a try?

At a time when the news media is under intense scrutiny, when people struggle to distinguish reliable information from “fake news” from merely biased news, how will we decide — and who will decide:

  • When is content inappropriate?
  • Who controls the content?
  • What if content is used to deceive?

I posed these questions last week, with emphasis on the information, or the content, that we create. And I asked how we — the content creators — will shape the answers.

Answering the content conundrum

Steven Brill interviewed on CNN
Steven Brill, interviewed on CNN on March 4, 2018

Here’s one answer, from Steven Brill, whose Wikipedia page calls him a “journalist-entrepreneur.” Brill’s new project is called NewsGuard.

NewsGuard, whose launch date has not been announced, will try to “help consumers distinguish between sites that are trying to get it right and sites that are trying to trick people.” Those are the words of Brian Stelter, who interviewed Brill for CNN’s “Reliable Sources” earlier this month. Continue reading


Content questions: will we have the answers?

This is about information: who controls its flow, who uses it, and who watches you when you use it.

This is about you. Because you access information — or content — on the internet, and because you probably create it as well.

Will someone have the power to tell you what content is and is not appropriate? Who controls what happens to the content you publish? Will someone use your content to deceive or mislead?

Just this month, 3 news stories have brought these questions into sharper focus. Will we, as writing professionals, have good answers? We’d better, because I don’t know if anyone else will.

When is content inappropriate? Who decides?

Advertisement captioned Don't worry, it's just Twitter

Scene from a recent ad appearing on Twitter’s website and in movie theaters

On March 1, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey promised to start measuring the platform’s “health” as a first step to freeing users from trolls and propaganda. (Josh Bernoff does a great job of  breaking down the announcement.) Admitting that “we didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences” of Twitter’s free-for-all format, Dorsey promises to get busy and fix the problem.

Can he fix it?  Can he put the lid back on Pandora’s box? It strikes me as too little, too late. Continue reading

7 words you can’t say at CDC

According to its mission statement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an agency of the U.S. government, “increases the health security of our nation.”

CDC logoIt does so primarily in two ways: researching diseases and their cures, and informing the public about its findings. For example, you might remember CDC’s role in warning citizens about the zika virus in 2015.

A few words might be missing

Soon, however, when you get information from CDC, a few words might be missing. Reportedly, senior officials within the Department of Health and Human Services recently decreed that CDC and other HHS agencies are forbidden from using 7 words in their official budget documents.

(This is a developing story. On Sunday, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald called the report about the 7 words “a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process.” The word mischaracterization leaves wiggle room: it’s reasonable to assume that there was discussion about avoiding certain words — even if it wasn’t an all-out ban.)

George Carlin with the 7 words superimposed on his photo

Credit: Scott Smith (@stampergr) on Twitter

Here are the 7 forbidden words:

  • vulnerable
  • entitlement
  • diversity
  • transgender
  • fetus
  • evidence-based
  • science-based

What does it mean when words become non-words? As anyone who’s read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, it’s an attempt by those in power to impose control.

They know something I’ve known throughout my writing career: words matter. A lot.

By changing the words in the conversation, do the people in charge at HHS think they can change reality? No. I don’t believe they’re that foolish. Not all of them anyway.

They can’t change reality, but they can change the way in which reality is discussed. If they change the terms of the discussion, they can influence the way people think.

When nothing can be described as evidence-based or science-based, there’s no longer a need to question a finding that’s unsupported by evidence.

When transgender is stripped from the vocabulary, they can more easily dismiss the health needs of thousands of our fellow ci.tizens.

When they stop saying vulnerable, it’s easier for them to overlook human beings who are vulnerable and who need help.

The Florida tides

It brings to mind what happened in Florida a few years ago. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection ordered its staff not to use the terms climate change and global warming in any official communications, emails, or reports.

This despite the fact that, according to a New York Times article, “when many cities in Florida flood, which can occur even without rainfall during the highest tides, fish swim in the streets and people wade to their cars.”

But the nabobs in the Department of Environmental Protection, even as the bottoms of their trousers get soaked, need not trouble themselves with the thought that this is anything more than a random natural phenomenon.

What can we do?

There’s a lot at stake here. Although it’s tempting to smirk and roll our eyes, we mustn’t dismiss this as mere bureaucratic foolery. Instead, we need to call it out for what it is: an attempt by those in power to impose control.

Be wary of gaslighting — of any attempt to change the way reality is perceived. Don’t let Why don’t we talk about x any more? turn into X never happenedAll of us share a duty to know the truth and hold fast to it.

Finally, even if HHS won’t use those words, by golly we can use them. And we should. Question what this government tells you — and don’t be afraid to answer back, What about the vulnerable ones? What scientific evidence do you have for this?

Never let them forget that words matter.

A parable for our time

Your periodic reminder that true leadership isn’t about exerting power and influence. It’s about having the heart and mind of a servant.

But he, a lawyer, willing to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went on the road near Washington, D.C., and an old injury suddenly flared up, and he fell down half dead.


Rembrandt’s “The Good Samaritan” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

And by chance there came down a certain White House staffer that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Congressman, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But an immigrant, as she journeyed, came where he was: and when she saw him, she had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, and helped him into her car, and brought him to a clinic, and took care of him.

And when she departed, she took out her Visa card, and gave it to the doctor, and said to him, Take care of him; and whatever you spend, I will repay you.

Now which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to him who was sick?

And he said, The one who showed mercy on him. Then Jesus said to him, Go, and do likewise.

– Luke 10:29-37 (paraphrase)

Sassy and also substantial

Peter Sokolowsky

Peter Sokolowsky (Image Source:

We’re having “a national conversation about language.”

So said Peter Sokolowsky, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster Dictionary, during an interview last week on CBS This Morning.

A national conversation about language? I don’t recall that ever happening before. If you ask me, it couldn’t come at a better time.

When the M-W Dictionary went online in 1996, Sokolowsky explained, it was the first time the dictionary’s curators could see what people were curious about. They’d never before been able to collect data about which words people were looking up.

In the past couple of years we’ve become hyper-aware of fake news, alternative facts, and the ways people use words to twist reality — or accuse others of twisting reality.

The watchers at M-W are doing their part: keeping close tabs on what people are looking up. When United Airlines sought volunteers to give up their seats and then had a passenger dragged off a plane, thousands of people went to the dictionary to look up the meaning of volunteer. Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account took note.Tweet from Merriam-Webster about the word volunteer

Increasingly, M-W’s tweets themselves have drawn attention. Continue reading

Try the knish

It’s a typical New York weekday. The well-dressed businessman, passing a sidewalk lunch cart, says to himself:

Is today the day I'll break down and try a knish? No, not today.

Is today the day I’ll break down and try a knish? No….not today.

A sign of strength

I’m struck by the businessman’s choice of words: break down. Is it really breaking down — is it really an act of weakness — to try new things? Of course not. Changing, and welcoming change, can be a sign of strength.

Professionally, we have to be open to change. While I fully understand the impulse to play it safe, to avoid risk, I can’t imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t welcomed change during my career in technical communication. Well, I can try to imagine: I’d still be writing print manuals for large-systems software, using command-line authoring tools. And I’d be pretty much unemployable.

I knew a programmer who insisted he was a “mainframe guy” and steadfastly refused to learn new operating systems or programming languages. He stayed employed up through the Y2K scare — and I don’t think he’s worked in the field since.

For him, weakness was in not being willing to change.

A sign of even greater strength

If welcoming change is an act of strength, I’ve recently come to appreciate that resisting change, when the change would undermine your values or compromise your principles, is an act of even greater strength.

We now live in a world where people in authority can lie and not be held to account. Where falsehood is presented as truth and truth as falsehood. Where people unabashedly engage in bigoted behavior. In a remarkably short time, the world has changed. These changes, rather than being welcomed, need to be resisted.

Paradoxically, it’s often by refusing to welcome healthy change (a Muslim family moves in next door, for example) that people end up changing in much bigger ways — letting go of their core values, compromising their principles. They become liars, to protect what they believe is being threatened. They become complicit at hiding or distorting the truth. They become bigots, lashing out at anyone who’s different.

The strong person is the one whose moral compass holds steady, who sees change and doesn’t react in fear.

Keeping strong

You’ve probably heard Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

To help me navigate today’s world, I’ve updated it:

God, grant me the enthusiasm to accept  change that will enrich me,
Strength to resist change that will diminish me,
And self-awareness to know the difference.


Go ahead. Try one.

Was it a matter of principle for my friend to insist he was a “mainframe guy”? It doesn’t look that way to me. It looks like fear, or stubbornness, or a combination of the two. I’ve tried to learn from his experience, because like most people I’m prone to staying with what’s comfortable.

Strong people don’t do that, though.

It boils down to knowing who you are — knowing your core values and your ethical principles.

Then, when you’re tempted to change in a way that compromises your values and your principles, you recognize the temptation and you summon the strength to resist.

And when you’re presented with something new, and you know that it doesn’t compromise your values and your principles, you can try the knish. And become better for having done so.

Postscript: One of the best changes in my life was moving from the Northeast to North Carolina in my mid-twenties. I have one lingering regret, though: it’s darned near impossible to find knishes here.
Cartoon: Warren Miller, The New Yorker

Photo: Mostly Foodstuffs

Ethel Payne: You should know her name

Ethel Payne. I didn’t recognize her name. But the cover of James McGrath Morris’s biography, Eye on the Struggle, called her “the First Lady of the Black Press” — a pioneering journalist of the civil rights era. I wanted to learn her story, so I picked up the book.


Ethel Payne (Washington Post file photo)

I learned that Payne was indeed highly influential, reporting on and often playing a part in the big civil rights stories of the 1950s and ’60s.

I learned that Payne made several trips to Africa, believing there was a close connection between the American civil rights movement and the efforts of African nations to gain independence. Late in her life she fulfilled a dream by interviewing Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990.

I learned that Payne’s writing appeared primarily in the Chicago Defender and other newspapers targeted to the African-American community — the “black press.” I’d known that such papers existed, but I’d never read them. So it still didn’t faze me that, even though I knew about Montgomery and Little Rock and Selma, I didn’t recognize the name of a key participant.

Then I learned that in the 1970s Payne worked as a commentator for CBS. I learned that she wrote a syndicated column that was picked up by many of the “mainstream” newspapers. As a result, I realized that I’d probably heard her speak on TV and that there’s a good chance I’d read some of her columns.

Now it bothers me that I didn’t recognize Ethel Payne’s name. Why hadn’t I remembered her? Continue reading

I know it when I see it

Who makes the rules of the internet? Who judges what’s offensive and what’s OK? What are the implications for those of us who create content?

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether the State of Ohio could ban a film it deemed to be obscene. Famously, Associate Justice Potter Stewart wrote that while he was hard pressed to define what qualifies something as obscene, “I know it when I see it.”

Where are the boundaries?


Image source: The Verve (Eric Peterson)

The boundaries of offensiveness have always been fuzzy and subject to change. Movie scenes that horrify one audience might not elicit even a blush from another. Books that would’ve gotten me in trouble had they been found in my high-school locker are part of the curriculum today.

Despite the lack of rules, the boundaries are very, very real. Most of us would say with all sincerity that, like Justice Stewart, we know when something transgresses a boundary. There are standards, even if they exist only in our minds and are sustained by our (illusory?) sense of belonging to a community.

The secret rules of the internet

This week I came upon The Secret Rules of the Internet, a long piece that describes the ways in which content is moderated on the major social-media platforms.

To the extent that I’d thought about how moderation works, which admittedly wasn’t much, I never would’ve supposed that:

  • Moderators often work with guidelines that are slapdash and incomplete.
  • Moderators are poorly trained, if they’re trained at all.
  • Moderators are prone to depression and other psychological disorders, largely because their jobs force them to see things they can’t bring themselves to describe to anyone.
  • There are no standards or best practices for moderation; rather, most media companies treat their moderation practices as trade secrets.
  • Moderation is often shoved into a “silo,” segregated from the rest of the company, even — especially — from areas that set the company’s course in terms of legal and ethical principles.
  • Some platforms are better at moderation than others. (The article contrasts Facebook, with its relatively well defined Safety Advisory Board, and Reddit, which has weak guidelines, a small team of moderators, and a reputation for harboring lots of offensive content.)

According to the article’s authors — Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly — all of these things are true. Continue reading

Living and learning: 2016

Merriam-Webster picked surreal as its 2016 word of the year, and…yeah. At times this year I’ve felt like Alice in Wonderland, and I’ll bet you have too.

One thing remains as true as ever, though: if you’re not learning, you’re not living.

Here are some things I learned this year:

The future is technical communication

screen-shot-2016-02-25-at-6-07-54-pmTechnology is moving forward at breakneck speed. People want technology. People have different learning styles.

Who can deliver the information people need to make use of, and enjoy, the technology that’s all around them? Technical communicators, that’s who.

That’s the gist of Sarah Maddox’s keynote speech at tcworld India 2016.

I think Sarah is saying that we need continuously to hone the technical part of our job title, while not neglecting the communicator part. And I think she’s absolutely right.

We care a lot about our professional society

STC logoSome of my most popular posts this year dealt with the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and its role in a changing world. How can STC remain relevant when the traditional roles of professional societies are changing? How can it serve a community that’s growing ever more diverse, in terms of the kinds of work we do?

As 2017 begins, STC is looking for a new CEO. Whoever gets the job, and whatever things they choose to prioritize, I hope they’ll appreciate the passion and dedication of STC’s members.

DITA isn’t cheap (but it’s still worth the cost)

DITA logoEven as more organizations embrace DITA for developing their content, we hear that DITA is complex and hard to learn. Overcoming DITA’s acceptance hurdles was one of my most commented-on blog posts this year, as was my plea for greater sensitivity to the writers’ learning curve.

Yes, DITA is powerful. But it didn’t get that way by being simple. I’ve come to appreciate that writers need time to absorb the underlying principles, which happen to align closely with the principles of good technical writing, and they need time to learn the how-to aspects as well. It’s time well spent, I think.

A leader is a storyteller

monsterWe saw it in this year’s political news: for better or worse, people are drawn to the leaders who tell the best stories.

As technical communicators, we’re by nature good storytellers.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does.

Don’t take things too seriously

The year truly has been surreal. Many of our deeply held beliefs — about leaders, about governments, about the course of history — have been challenged if not overturned.

Yet my most-read post in 2016, by far, was a collection of jokes. That taught me not to take things too seriously, and especially not to take myself too seriously.

It reminded me that we’re all human beings. We all need to connect with each other and, sometimes, share a laugh.

I hope I’ve connected with you, at least a few times, in 2016. I hope we’ll continue to connect in 2017. And even share a laugh or two.

Related: Living and learning: 2015

Breaking protocol

The U.S. president-elect has been drawing fire for having conversations with foreign leaders in which he broke protocol. His critics have charged, for example, that he didn’t talk to the right person, or that he didn’t have the right people in the room.


Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in The King and I — a story about (among other things) breaking protocol

In fact, the criticism has focused much more on the president-elect’s alleged disregard for protocol than on the substance of his conversations.

I’m not here today to judge Mr. Trump’s actions or his words. I want to talk about protocol-breaking and how it touches all of us as professionals.

All of us — employees, contractors, consultants — work with organizations that have their own unique ways of doing things.

For example, in various places where I’ve worked I’ve found that:

  • A manager can never be transparent: they must defend every edict from higher up as if it were their own.
  • Email is used for almost all day-to-day communication. It’s considered impolite to pick up the phone and call someone to ask a question.

When you arrive in an organization like that, is it OK to break protocol? Under what circumstances? If you choose to break protocol should you do it quietly or openly?

Here are the guidelines I follow. Continue reading