A few days ago I spotted a Washington Post headline: “Treasury secretary says tax reform will be easier lift for Congress than health care.”
I couldn’t quite believe it. If there is one word that should be stricken from the journalist’s vocabulary, it is “reform.” Use of it is unprofessional and unethical. Seeing a big deal newspaper like the Post use it is really disappointing.
There are two problems with the word. First, while in its simplest form, it merely means “to form again,” it never falls on anyone’s ears in its simplest form. It is an emotionally loaded term, and reporters for entities that pretend to objectivity are supposed to stay away from loaded terms. The Random House Dictionary shows the problem with the word: “the improvement of what is wrong, corrupt, etc. 2. an improvement in conduct, character, etc. 3. to change to a better state, form, etc. 4. to cause (a person) to abandon evil ways of life or conduct. 5. to abandon evil ways of life or conduct.”
The second problem is that applying the term to one side in a dispute carries the clear and plain implication that the other side does not have the qualities of reformers. In other words, using the term means that journalists are taking sides by endowing one side with positive qualities while suggesting the other side is lacking in them.
Here are some recent headlines and excerpts from news stories:
“No hearing for primary reform.”
“Nevada Supreme Court chief justice urges bail reform.”
“Wage equality, violence among women’s issues in need of reform.”
“Nevada Legislature looks to reform guardian program.”
“Reforming state’s trapping laws a positive step forward.”
“Democrats have held hearings on several election reform proposals.”
“…a handful of state lawmakers are pushing to implement the first major reform to payday lending laws for the first time in more than a decade.”
“Five reasons Trump will face difficulty on tax reforms.”
The working poor, who are getting very little relief from Donald Trump’s tax program, are unlikely to agree with the application of the word “reform” in that last headline. On the other hand, the one percent will agree with it. They’re making out well from Trump’s tax changes.
Let’s look at the first headline – “No hearing for primary reform.” This references a piece of legislation that would change the way Nevada’s delegate selection process for national presidential nominating conventions work. Although some journalists have written that there is no disagreement with the notion that the process needs change, in fact, there are plenty of people who disagree. So where does a newspaper get off designating one side the good guys and the other side the bad guys?
A Reno television station once had this headline posted on a story on its website: “The Nevada Supreme Court has rejected one effort toward reform in the state’s judicial system.” It’s pretty easy to tell who the bad guys are here. It should not be easy.
I once saw an amazing Reno Gazette-Journal story by Ray Hagar and Brendan Riley at the close of a special session of the Nevada Legislature dealing with medical malpractices. The medical lobby and their PR people had convinced most Nevada journalists – particularly in Clark County – that trial lawyers were the problem, and that prejudice showed through in most news coverage, including repeated use of the term “reform.” By contrast, Hagar and Riley, in a story more than a thousand words long, managed to avoid ever using the term.
In nearly every news story, the word “change” neatly replaces “reform” and at the same time removes the slant from the story. The word “reform” has no ethical business in any news story unless it is inside quotation marks.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.