Category Archives: Society

When you have something shocking to say

The news reports buckled my knees. According to a Pennsylvania grand jury, hundreds of Roman Catholic priests across the state sexually abused more than 1,000 children over a 70-year period.

handwritten letter about a case of child abuse

Image source: Josh Bernoff

The details are shocking and sickening. It’s hard to imagine the scope of the damage done.

Imagine having to write about that story. How do you do it? How do you keep from veering into lurid sensationalism on the one hand and cold, dispassionate, recitation on the other?

The anonymous person who wrote the grand jury’s report handled it brilliantly.

In his excellent analysis, Josh Bernoff calls the report “an amazing document, a model for clarity of description in an emotionally charged environment.”

Josh mixes excerpts from the report with his comments. Here, I’ve boldfaced some of Josh’s comments and added mine in response.

I hope you’ll add your comments as well. Continue reading

Advertisements

Connecting across languages, connecting across cultures

The priest was imprisoned by the Nazis in the concentration camp at Dachau. The numbers tattooed on his arm served as an ever-present reminder.

Sculpture at Dachau Memorial Site

Sculpture by Nandor Glid at the Dachau Memorial Site (photo credit below)

Now, 30 years later, he was working as a docent at the Dachau Memorial Site. He watched as the four of us — my high-school classmates and I — stood before a poem on the wall, painstakingly translating it from German to English.

We gladly accepted his offer of help. So began a wonderful conversation in which he told us what it had been like for him. Showed us the numbers on his arm. Brought to life things that for us, up to then, had merely been information in history books.

At one point I commented on the beauty of the German language — how the poem we were reading allowed a depth of expression that I didn’t think would be possible in English.

The priest smiled and said, “That’s funny. I see it the other way.” For him, English had much more potential for beauty, nuance, and expressiveness than his native German.

Another way to view the world

I thought of that encounter recently when I read Jacob Mikanowski’s thoughts on English becoming the world’s dominant language. Continue reading

Putting out a paper, goddamn it

The FAKE NEWS media…is the enemy of the American people! (February 2017)

Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools! (June 2018)

Of all the odious things the U.S. president has said — and there are many — these are among the most odious. They’re certainly among the most dangerous. (When the president says fake news, of course, he’s talking about mainstream press whose reporting isn’t to his liking.)

Dome of hte Maryland state Capitol

The Maryland state Capitol, from the Capitol Gazette’s masthead

Yesterday a gunman killed 5 people and injured 2 more in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. While he didn’t wear a red hat or shout “MAGA” — the hallmarks of a radical Trumpian terrorist — he might’ve been emboldened by the president’s words. The words certainly did nothing to dissuade him.

Maybe he thought he could silence the press.

He was wrong.

Shortly after the gunman was taken into custody, Gazette reporter Pat Furgurson called his wife. CNBC’s John Harwood, a friend of Ferguson’s, describes the call:

Today, journalists in Annapolis and every corner of the world will put out a paper, goddamn it. Some, like Pat Furgurson, will work in the face of tragedy. Some will risk imprisonment or even death. But their work won’t stop.

(This tweet from Kyle Feldscher sparked a chain of other, similar stories of journalists continuing to do their jobs even as tragedies turned their lives upside down.)

The press is not the enemy of the people. It’s the enemy of liars. It’s the enemy of charlatans. It’s the enemy of all who claim authority to which they’re not entitled.

Men and women of the press — the journalists and those who work with them — are fighting for the people: working to find the truth and disseminate it.

For us technical writers, journalists are our kith and kin. To a great extent, we share the same skills — interviewing, researching, clear writing, critical thinking — and the same passion for finding and disseminating the truth.

Today we honor those who were slain in Annapolis: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Wendi Winters. Let’s also honor the other men and women of the press who serve the people by fighting for the truth and lighting a lamp in the darkness.

How do you know I’m telling the truth?

Deep in the Amazon rain forest, they do a really marvelous thing.

Have I seen it for myself? Well, no. Did I hear it from an eyewitness? No again. Truth to tell, I read about it on the internet.

Aerial view of Papuri River

The Papuri River in South America (photo: Andre Baertschi)

I need to back up and start from the beginning.

Dave Thomas, in a recent article titled The Revolution Will Have Structured Content, describes how the language of a culture will reflect whatever values the culture finds most important.

Thus, for example, “if we require Mr., which says nothing about marital status, before a man’s name but either Miss or Mrs. before a woman’s name, we are saying that the most important thing to know about that woman is her marital status.” And that’s why, over the last half-century, the use of Ms. has become prevalent.

A grammar based on evidence

Now, Thomas asks, what if a culture placed a high value on truth? Would its language evolve a grammar that would help a listener to evaluate the veracity of a given statement? Continue reading

Communication and tomorrow’s forecast

clouds

In 1854, John Ball, newly elected to Parliament, stood in the House of Commons to suggest that, just a few years hence, it might be possible to predict London’s weather 24 hours in advance.

He was drowned out by laughter.

Not much more than a century and a half ago, the notion of forecasting the weather sounded preposterous. So let me tell you a story.

Because you’re reading this blog, you probably make your living by communicating. As communicators, we don’t always enjoy the same prestige as scientists, inventors, and the other “movers and shakers” in our world. We might be tempted to think that they’re the ones with the ideas; we only communicate about their ideas. Yet the story of how weather forecasting became reality is a story of communication. Continue reading

Policing the public square

No doubt you’ve seen the news. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gone up to Capitol Hill this week to answer questions from several different Congressional committees. They want to know what Facebook is doing about privacy breaches and interference by foreign actors.

In his prepared testimony, Zuckerberg said:

“It’s not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive. It’s not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure people aren’t using it to hurt people or spread misinformation. It’s not enough to give people control of their information, we have to make sure developers they’ve given it to are protecting it too. Across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.”

Zuckerberg and Besmehn

Mark Zuckerberg and assistant Andrea Besmehn arrive on Capitol Hill (photo source: NPR)

So, as NPR’s Camila Domonoske points out, Facebook now admits that it’s a content publisher, not just a technology platform on which other people create content. That’s big news.

Here’s even bigger news: Continue reading