COMMENT: Writing on the wall - Tammy Swofford - Thursday, April 14, 2011

Words have power. Each word is like a bullet with velocity and impact. But we cannot forget that words also have the power to heal, mend, lift and restore. This is also the task of a journalist, one that requires greater writing skill 

It was with relief that I
followed my fellow officer through ‘enemy fire’ to the area field latrine. At the end point of a mass casualty exercise, ‘terrorists’ had attacked our generators. The staff of Fleet Hospital, Dallas worked in darkness inside the GPL’s (general purpose large) tents to triage and treat casualties. Armed with flashlights, we worked quickly to assess patients and work with the algorithms used to manage a mass casualty event.

Years before, as a newly appointed Navy nurse, an older and wiser officer warned me about heeding the call of nature while in the field. In an earlier field exercise, she discreetly moved away from the group to find an appropriate clump of bushes and trees to allow a bit of privacy. Dropping her pants, she suddenly found herself surrounded by eyeballs and bombarded by whistles. She had stumbled right into the middle of a group of Special Forces practicing their camouflage techniques. Being practical, I told her that I would have at least demanded the chocolate from the field-stripped MRE’s (meals-ready-to-eat) as opposed to fleeing in terror.

With this image in mind, I gratefully stepped inside a field latrine for the first time. Constructed from a few rain panchos, the smell hit me as soon as I opened the door flap. I took my flashlight to sweep the area as I entered it. ‘Sweep high, sweep low’ is part of my training. My eyes took in the scene: a pit with two saw horses with a sturdy mop handle over it, toilet paper roll on the ground, bag of lime and shovel to the side.

Perching vicariously on the mop handle and holding on for dear life I muttered, “For God and country,” under my breath and it sounded like a curse. With flies buzzing beneath me like miniature drones, I finished my business in record time. Grasping the primitive implement of war, I tossed a couple of shovels of lime into the death pit. The flies still droned across the pit. I made a mental note that I would brave the bushes before entering a field latrine again. Even the worst of times can become the best of analogies to platform a concept. So let us contemplate a bit the death pit of foreign relations and the winged insects, otherwise known as news journalists, buzzing across the landscape.

The Ameri-Pak situation appears at an all-time low. Headlines across the globe trumpet the same news, whether the Daily Times of Pakistan or The New York Times of April 12, which sported the headline, ‘Pakistan tells US it must sharply cut CIA activities.’

The lead sentence for the article also bears mention: “The demand that the US scale back its presence is a sign of the near collapse of cooperation between the two testy allies after the arrest of a CIA security officer in Pakistan.”

All acknowledge the existence of a complex problem. All involved understand that blame, while never being coequal in status, must still be shouldered with equal responsibility if solutions are to be negotiated. But what complicates things immensely are the journalism drones. We are a pompous lot, those of us who serve up opinions from our desks, whilst sipping our tea and gazing out the window. Our thoughts take quick flight with the least whiff of a stink. Journalists love a ready-made story and this current drama presents multiple angles of presentation. Because this current stench betwixt and between our nations is likely to continue in unabated manner for months to come, it is good to remember a few basic rules of professional journalism.

Words have power. Each word is like a bullet with velocity and impact. The word ‘murder’ takes on a different meaning when presented as a ‘heinous murder’. The same is true for the word ‘rape’ if presented as ‘brutal rape’. But we cannot forget that words also have the power to heal, mend, lift and restore. This is also the task of a journalist, one that requires greater writing skill.

Articles written for news organisations must be read by the author twice, and in view of two different audiences: the reasonable man and the unreasonable man. It is after reading the piece for the latter audience that necessary corrections and adjustments to text are made. This is the careful copy-edit that looks into the soul of the writer to assure that integrity prevails and human bias and sentimentality do not overshadow otherwise excellent thoughts. The writer who consistently invalidates their craft by seeking to chamber a bullet with excessive passion must be held accountable. They must not easily escape the impact of their words.

Truth should never be obscured from the reader. The truth currently lies bare between our nations, and it is the function of a free press. But there is a greater truth, which must be understood when writing on a level that addresses difficulties between sovereign powers. What cannot be immediately changed must be walked through with endurance and resolve. Nations are bound by treaties and policy and complexities that the average citizen can scarcely grasp. Nations can find themselves within a foreign policy wasteland, which necessitates sustaining a status quo to avoid a greater political instability. So words must be chosen with special care when tackling policy issues in the print media.

The best of journalists are able to speak the truth in a manner that strengthens the weak, anchors the thought and brings comfort and hope to the reader. It is the art of gracious words, a somewhat lost art in the world of print journalism. I am always optimistic. The best writers are out there. They will rise to the top of their game — with the right choice of words.

The writer is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserves. She is a Nurse Corps officer who resides in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She has written articles and book reviews for the Marine Corps Gazette, and Op-Ed commentary for the Dallas Morning News

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