Saturday, October 18, 2014

Words Make a Difference

Last week, I ran across a news story in which the writer described firefighters using “self-controlled breathing apparatus.” The correct term, of course, is “self-contained breathing apparatus” (also known as SCBA). My initial thought was, Really? In a direct quote from an experienced firefighter, how can you not get that right?

I decided this was worth a little exploration into how and why writers often get fire service terminology wrong.

First, the writer’s name was unfamiliar to me, so I’m guessing he is new to the organization. (I read a lot of articles on that particular news outlet's website, so I tend to recognize names that have or have not been around a while.) His writing style also indicated that he’s likely a younger person, maybe just out of college, and not a veteran reporter.

Reporters have a tough job. They can be assigned to cover anything from rubber duck races to major disasters, and are expected to get all the facts correct, even if they lack experience with a given topic. Young writers and reporters are at more of a disadvantage simply because they haven’t been on the planet long enough to accumulate a broad base of knowledge. They sometimes have a steep learning curve that, unfortunately, plays out in the public eye.

But what if this isn’t a young guy? What if this error was a result of what I call “not knowing what you don’t know”?

Everyone knows something. However, people are also susceptible to thinking they know something when, in fact, they don’t. We’ve all seen that human trait in action; just a few days ago, I observed a guy who publicly berated elected officials by trotting out “facts” that he was convinced were true but actually weren’t. When a person doesn’t know something, he or she usually won’t realize it until someone else sets that person straight.

I’ve seen this a lot with writers trying to describe firefighting. People think that because they’ve seen Backdraft and Chicago Fire, they’ve got this firefighting thing down pat. No need for actual research. Or maybe they do research, but their sources are flawed or otherwise not credible, or they misinterpret the information. Sometimes I think they discard research in favor of drama. Why let facts get in the way of a good story?

So it’s entirely possible that this particular writer thought he knew what SCBA stood for when he really didn’t.

It’s also possible, but in my mind unlikely, that the firefighter misspoke and unintentionally used the wrong word. We’re all guilty of those moments when the brain outpaces the mouth and out pops something we didn’t mean to say. But SCBAs are a crucial part of protective gear. Firefighters spend so much time drilling with SCBA from the moment they set foot in a fire academy that the terminology becomes ingrained. Using incorrect vocabulary in this case is tantamount to getting your own name wrong.

Another possibility is sloppy note-taking. I use my own shorthand when jotting notes during interviews; in some cases, one abbreviation can stand for different things depending on context. This is where experience comes in. I’ve been a compulsive note-taker my whole life, so deciphering my own scribbles really isn’t difficult. But maybe this guy doesn’t quite have his system down yet. Maybe he wrote down something like “self cont. breath. app.” and later mistook the “cont.” to mean “controlled” instead of “contained.”

Or perhaps the writer simply had one of those frustrating misfires between brain and keyboard. It happens.

Regardless of the reason(s) behind this writer’s mistake, it’s still a mistake that can cause a reader to suspect the writer’s credibility. It becomes a breach of trust between writer and reader, and that is something that you don’t want to happen.

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