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Media mantra: Get it right'

By Staff
Nov. 26, 2000
The word "mantra" kept popping up in newsroom conversations last week so I headed for the dictionary to make sure I had the correct meaning. Sure enough, mantra means an oft-repeated word or phrase, held sacred in Hinduism or Buddhism.
For the rest of us, briefly speaking, a mantra is a slogan or belief.
Columnist Helen Thomas' admonition that the media must "get it right" qualifies as a mantra. The TV people are being slapped pretty hard  like a fish in their collective faces, I'd say with the need to get it right. Coming after election night confusion in Florida when networks declared Gore then Bush then too close to call" as the winner, the criticism really must have hit home.
Shortly after election night, another word entered the popular American vocabulary  chads, those little bits of paper that fall out when you punch a butterfly ballot in Florida. All of the broadcast "chad mongers," probably a few in print journalism as well, are doing their best to monitor the chad count.
Purloined bags of chads will probably wash up soon on the beaches of Palm Beach County, much like hypodermic needles washed up on the shores of New Jersey a few years ago. Scary.
Forget the ballots, if they had counted chads in the first place this election would be over. I say for the vote to count, chads must be completely separated from the ballot, and I know this view is different from the one held by some judges down in the Sunshine State.
Thanks to the miracle of television, chads suddenly went from a largely unknown by-product of the computer age to the most highly prized currency in our political system. They are enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. But the real test will be about nine months from now when we'll know what children's name is most popular among politically active families.
If it's "Chad," I fear for the country.
Tragic story
But Helen Thomas, the longtime White House correspondent for the old United Press International, is onto a theme this week with local interest. It was underscored in an E-mail to one of our staff writers in response to a story about the tragic death of a man who apparently rode his bicycle into the path of an on-coming car.
We also used the word "elderly" as an adjective in both the headline and story.
Warm, caring
The victim is described as a warm and caring person who loved children. At his funeral, the E-mailer said, a 13-year-old boy gave a very touching eulogy.
information from more than one source."
I understand and appreciate the E-mailer's response. This was a very tragic event.
If you believe the word "elderly" is defined as a person approaching old age, then perhaps 58 is elderly. If you believe elderly goes to a state of mind and physical condition, then perhaps 78 isn't elderly.
When the source of information is official  such as names, ages and addresses we do feel confident enough to use it.
The word elderly as used in this story was descriptive, not disrespectful, a point I hope all of our other E-mailers also appreciate. Which takes me to the E-mailer's other point:
The suggestions are well-intentioned and I would not disagree we don't always take the time to get to know each other. As a newspaper editor, I wish I knew every detail about the lives of people about whom we write. But, as well-intentioned as the suggestions are, deadlines and the rapid flow of events in the daily news business allow them to be taken only occasionally.
As for the word "elderly," consider this:
The American Association of Retired Persons will allow me to join and get a membership card when I turn 50. I don't intend to be retired at 50, although I may take the group up on discounted meals and travel.
And, Senior Golfer, in a new marketing plan unveiled by the magazine earlier this year, targets golfers when they attain the age of 45. Golfers, they claim, meet their standards at an age when most of us still feel fairly young and shy away from anything associated with the word "senior."
As to the mantra "get it right"  we will continue to try. I hope you'll keep on telling us when we don't … and when we do.
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. E-mail him at bbynum@themeridianstar.com.