The language of the broad brush

Reporters often sketch their stories in a few quick strokes; news consumers, beware!

Once upon a time, in the days before e-mail, newspaper editors composed their messages to foreign correspondents on typewriters. Part of a junior editor's job was walking those typed messages to the wire room for transmission. And part of a junior editor's education was reading those messages and their replies, to see what the editor wanted and perhaps wasn't getting from a correspondent. It was in this way that I learned the phrase "broad brush," as in "broad-brush analysis."

For a stringer (occasional contributor) in a place where news of interest to the Monitor broke maybe half a dozen times a year, it could be a challenge to step back from the daily minutiae of reporting for a local media organization and frame a story broadly enough for the Monitor's international readership.

In the years since, I've learned that all reporting is in a sense "foreign reporting," and that a few pithy phrases of scene-setting are almost always – well, I was going to say "helpful" but I'll settle on "inevitable." Thus we get stories that begin, "Amid concern about global warming..." or "Against a backdrop of higher oil prices..." and the like.

But these handy phrases can occasionally backfire.

A couple weeks ago a reader complained via a mutual friend about a passing reference in something I'd written to clear-cutting of forests. In context, it was obviously meant to be a bad thing: slash-and-burn logging that denudes the earth and lets the wind carry away topsoil.

But as my correspondent pointed out, and I was readily able to confirm, "clear-cutting" is also the term for the accepted way to log Douglas fir trees in the Pacific Northwest, for reasons having to do with the way these forests regenerate themselves.

Oops. Does this mean that I should have come up with a different shorthand?

I don't think so. "Clear-cutting" was a scene-setting phrase; it wasn't the primary thrust of the piece.

This language of the broad brush is like the backdrop on a stage. Look closely at those trees painted on the back wall, and you don't see individual leaves. After all, it's backdrop. The main thing is the actors.

I remember when "infrastructure" became part of the public vocabulary. It was commonly glossed as "roads and bridges." A sorehead could have complained that infrastructure also includes sewer and power lines, fiber-optic cables, etc. But "roads and bridges" became the standard shorthand.

Sometimes such phrases turn out to be surprisingly comprehensive. Some years ago I reported on the enlargement of NATO. As the new democracies of Eastern Europe jockeyed to prove themselves ready for membership in the Atlantic Alliance, a couple of practical questions emerged: how many of their officer corps spoke English, and whether their radios could be made to communicate with NATO's. Conveniently, both were readily understood by readers. After all, everyone has an idea what a radio looks like. So "radio compatibility" and "English-language skill" became the broad-brush phrases of my research and reporting.

Readers and viewers (I suppose I could call them "news consumers," but I'd rather think of them as "engaged citizens") need to understand when certain phrases are being used as scene-setting language, and when they're part of the primary reporting of a piece. And reporters need to take care not to paint backdrops with too broad a brush.

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