Editor’s Column: Language should clarify, not confuse

One of the ironclad rules I’ve found in journalism — and writing in general — is that if a story is confusing, it’s because the person writing it is confused.

In news stories, that could be because of a rookie mistake. Maybe the reporter didn’t want to seem ill-informed and so didn’t ask a clarifying question.

It could be because the reporter has been covering a beat for long enough that he or she has absorbed the jargon. That’s how the word “monies” ends up in a story instead of “money.” Or “physical altercation” for “fight.”

The goal of all communication is supposed to be clarity, and that’s especially true for a news story. 

Usually jargon is irritating but harmless. In some cases, though, it uses euphemism and bloodless language to hide harm. Think “downsizing” or “off-shoring” when talking about cutting jobs.

And, of course, in politics, jargon and misleading language are constantly at the ready to criticize or praise this proposal or that.

On Thursday, I got an email from the office of Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., with the headline, “Cramer Applauds FCC Decision to Restore Internet Freedom.”

In it, Cramer praises the decision by the FCC to change the classification of internet providers from “Common Carriers,” which makes them subject to strict oversight from the FCC, to an “information service,” a category with fewer restrictions.

Cramer makes the argument that less regulation will help internet service providers flourish and drive innovation.

It’s an argument that has plenty of adherents, even if I don’t agree with it.

I’ve met Cramer, and know he’s a serious-minded man who can talk intelligently about a range of arcane policy issues. Even when I don’t agree with him, I know he’s being sincere.

But I take issue with calling what the FCC is proposing a “free and open” internet.

It comes down to one question: Free for whom?

As it stands now, most Americans don’t have many choices when it comes to an internet service provider, if they have one at all.

That isn’t something that’s likely to change, either. 

With the so-called “light touch” regulations the FCC is looking at, some of the things internet users in the U.S. now take for granted go away.

One of the reasons ISPs were classified as a “Common Carrier” was because a federal court had rejected regulations from the FCC that included prohibiting blocking content from competitors and stopping ISPs from charging other companies for priority service, i.e., faster speeds.

The FCC’s new proposal asks whether such rules are needed. I think the right question is whether the FCC or consumers can trust ISPs to act in the best interest of internet users rather than their own bottom line.

And I think the answer to that is a clear no.

The FCC’s proposal also raises the question about whether it makes sense to prohibit things that are possible, even if no company has actually done them yet.

My father used to use the old saw that prohibition presupposes previous practice. It doesn’t have to, though. If there’s a foreseeable problem, then it makes sense to stop it before it happens, doesn’t it?

I don’t know whether classifying ISPs as “Common Carriers” is the right solution, but the idea that allowing companies to block legal content, throttle users’ accounts or charge companies for faster delivery to consumers makes the internet “free and open” is laughable.

Jamie Kelly is the managing editor of the Williston Herald. He can be reached at editor@willistonherald.com or (701) 572-2165.

Original editorial from the Williston Herald.