Watchdogging?

Every once in a while I get nostalgic for the days when I worked as a reporter. Today is one of those days, because I’ve found several national news stories today that shocked me. These are stories that I know I could have written much better. In fact, the problems with these stories make me pretty angry.

The first was this CNN story about the @pigspotter Twitterer. Essentially, a South African is posting warnings of speed traps for motorists on Twitter and the police have sued him. Content aside, I want to know when it became common practice for journalists to use the word “cops” to refer to police. I recognize that no language is neutral, but “police” is the accepted term for journalists. You’ll notice that even @pigspotter uses the term “police” in all his correspondence with CNN (although he uses other terms, like “cops” in his tweets), but this journalist chose to use “cops” three times of her own volition, outside of quotes or paraphrased material. The screenshots below record this usage, even if CNN updates it. (Note the caption on the photo, which may have been written by the journalist or by an editor. The bottom image has two instances of the word “cop.”)

Screenshot from CNN.com at 10 a.m. 9/22/10

Screenshot from CNN.com at 10 a.m. 9/22/10

Screenshot from CNN.com at 10 a.m. 9/22/10

This is not a regional/cultural thing, because one of those references was to Florida police and the story has no dateline, indicating that it’s U.S.-based. So, what’s the deal? Are journalists with national audiences just not required to be aware of their language and its effects?

Another example, in “Supreme Court Won’t Stop Execution of Virginia Woman” … when did it become acceptable to refer to women by their first names and men by their last names? This is a major credibility issue. As Amy Robillard asserts in her College English article “Young Scholars Affecting Composition: A Challenge to Disciplinary Citation Practices,” the usage of first names seriously reduces the respect given the person named. Granted, this woman is a death row inmate. But … she’s also a death row inmate for conspiring in a murder that two men actually committed (and neither of them received the death penalty). I’m not saying she’s not an awful person … but she’s still as much a person as her two co-conspirators, and they’re referred to by last name on second reference. She’s still as much of a person as any other criminal ever reported on, and they are always (according to AP style) referred to by last name on second reference. Check out this direct quote from the article, which I’ve included as a screenshot because I anticipate that CNN will revise the story:

Screenshot from CNN.com at 10 a.m. 9/22/10

Even though this was no doubt an unintentional slip, it still showcases the mental processes used by CNN staff to classify women differently than men.

How sad.

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