We all sometimes resort to euphemism or other indirect language in everyday life, often to tiptoe around a topic. But that’s a problem for journalists.
While features such as in-depth profiles or narratives can benefit from a writerly hand, current events are usually best conveyed simply, if not bluntly.
That’s especially true when reporting on mishap and tragedy. Accidents, crime and other misfortune have real-world effects on human lives, and it can feel subjectively inappropriate if news reports are florid or overly literary.
That’s why “spot news” reporting is generally dry. A car crashed. A worker fell. A suspect was arrested.
Readers often question that directness, particularly when it comes to death.
“Why did you have to just write that this person ‘died?’” asked one caller after reading a recent news obituary. “I think (the deceased’s) family would appreciate if you would write that he ‘passed away.’”
That impulse is laudable and understandable, but The Star follows The Associated Press Stylebook, whose entry on the word “die” reads: “Don't use euphemisms like passed on or passed away except in a direct quote.”
Euphemism is also used often in the business world to make products and services seem customer-friendly. One prominent example in the news recently comes from the controversy over Uber and Lyft.
These companies’ business model is to recruit drivers to use their own cars to pick up passengers, using smartphone apps and GPS technology to bypass traditional taxi services.
But they don’t call themselves taxi or cab companies, presumably because many of their drivers also utilize their vehicles as their own primary transportation. Instead, they often use terms such as “ride-sharing” to describe their services — which they charge fees for.
They have encountered opposition from taxicab operators who don’t like the competition, and from government regulators and other officials concerned about their safety practices and insurance liability — both understandably.
Yes, Uber and Lyft’s services can be cheaper than a taxicab. But their fares are calculated dynamically according to the time of day and weather conditions, and can be dramatically more expensive than traditional cabs during “surge” times when demand is high and supply is low.
“The Star should stop referring to Uber and Lyft as ‘ride-sharing’ services, which they are not,” one reader emailed recently. “They are taxi dispatchers. They have nothing to do with sharing rides.”
His point is exactly right. If Uber and Lyft offer “ride-sharing” service, then McDonald’s is a “hambuger-sharing” service.
I was glad that The Associated Press issued this new rule just last week, then: “Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft let people use smartphone apps to book and pay for a private car service or in some cases, a taxi. They may also be called ride-booking services. Do not use ride-sharing.”
Leave the marketing slogans to the advertising departments. Journalists should describe waddling, quacking waterfowl as ducks.