Category Archives: Society

The biggest stories

What’s the biggest news story of your lifetime?

Neil Armstrong on the moon

Has it really been 50 years? (Photo Source: NASA)

For me, two stories have stood above the rest. While both of them took years to play out, they both, by coincidence, culminated in years that ended with 9:

  • On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. When the Apollo 11 crew returned safely to earth, it fulfilled a goal set by President John F. Kennedy eight years earlier.
  • On November 9, 1989, crowds of Germans danced on top of the Berlin Wall — the death rattle for Communist domination of Eastern Europe.

Two more stories

Recently, however, I’ve added two more stories to my list. I wonder if either one will see a turning point, or even a culmination, in this 9 year.

  • The earth’s climate is warming, and people are suffering the effects. Almost everyone in the scientific community agrees that the warming is caused by human activity, and that unless we quickly change [our energy consumption], the disastrous effects will be irreversible.
  • In Europe and the United States, right-wing nationalist leaders, preying on people’s fears and sowing division, are consolidating power and threatening to turn democracies into authoritarian states.
Fire in Paradise, California

Paradise, California – November 2018. Will climate change end up being the top news story of the 21st century? (Photo Source: NBC News)

I don’t know whether either story will end happily, as my first two stories did. But I know that happy endings are possible only if we, the people, demand openness and truth from those who hold economic and political power.

I think we all know the truth about climate change. But because so many powerful people pretend not to know, or simply don’t care, we risk doing grave damage to the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit.

Would-be authoritarian leaders, of course, consolidate power by distorting the truth: by gaslighting, and by suppressing facts they deem to be inconvenient. They get away with it when we, the people, don’t call them to account.

Truth: worth fighting for

For years, I’ve said and written that truth is absolute, that it’s a cornerstone of a free society, and that it’s worth fighting for.

But, to my dismay, I’ve seen that a lot of people simply don’t care about truth. I’m not talking now about the would-be dictators. I’m talking about ordinary citizens who simply shrug their shoulders, comfortable to live in ignorance.

Whether you believe in making New Year’s resolutions or not, I hope that in this 9 year you’ll resolve to speak up for truth and, if necessary, fight to defend it. I have.

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Your guide to defending the truth

Time cover showing journalists around a tableYou’ve probably heard it by now: Time magazine bestowed its annual Person of the Year award on the Guardians in the war on truth. The award honors Jamal Khashoggi, killed at the Saudi embassy in Turkey, the staff of the Capital Gazette, 5 of whom were gunned down in their office, and other journalists who light a lamp in the darkness.

But defending the truth isn’t just for journalists. You and I, the consumers of content, have a part to play too. As I’ve written, we keep the light shining by

This past Monday, Joy Mayer, director of a research project called Trusting News, posted her own list of ways to, as she puts it, repair trust in journalism.

Mayer does a good job of amplifying my points and adding fresh insights. Continue reading

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

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 Furgurson’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