People seem wildly disinterested in words these days, so it’s nice to see media remind us of their power. Several great reporters have written stories recently that have made me think about the value of words and the people who know how to use them. The ideas put forth in those stories made this less talented writer decide to weave together a rambling narrative for his small audience.
In a NY Mag Q+A published earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia memorably told Jennifer Senior that “Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change.” Now, he didn’t say that in defense of prose or the English major’s field of study, he said it in a response to a question on his Originalist interpretation of the Constitution. If you are thinking “hey, are you about to undermine your own thesis in the second paragraph?” you’re right, but it’s a great quote even if I took it out of context. Scalia himself is no stranger to specificity when it comes to words. His use of “argle-bargle” in his DOMA dissent is unforgettable.
Scalia’s opinion in words and meaning is especially prescient now that we’re all under constant attack from content marketers who are testing the malleability of every phrase. High-concept words are used in the context of high-concept discussion without any real consideration to their meaning. The “2070 Paradigm Shift” TED Talk illuminates this (hilariously I might add). This comedian excels at being meaningless in a meaningful way. He fools them all, the same way a savvy marketer might, all while saying absolutely nothing.
Certain words enter language usefully, but can be overused to the point of absurdity as Mark Peters highlights in his Slate piece on shaming. Like privilege and troll, the internet commenter effect is taking its toll on the idea of shaming. All of those words initially had specific meanings and were used in certain contexts which gave them power. Privilege went from being an academic sociological term to an insult hurled stupidly on blogs and in comments sections. Troll and shaming have been hammered and stretched to fit a variety of purposes, to the point where the words have lost their impact. Peters writes:
“We really should restrain ourselves from mindlessly slapping this label on every single thing in the world that makes us feel bad. I’d hate to lose such a potent word to the Buzzword Abyss, especially since real shaming—the kind mostly done by misogynist jerks or terrible parents—is a true disgrace.”
I think Peters is right, and the bloggers and commenters that spill reactionary vitriol all over the Internet do a lot to diminish a word or phrase’s impact. And I think that the word abusers that send otherwise bon mots into the Buzzword Abyss do damage to people who know how to express themselves. I run into buzzword soup a lot at my job – the spammers forcing gibberish onto all channels make work a chore.
There have been a number of takedowns of the “coding is the answer” genre, too many to run through, but suffice to say the solution to everyone’s individual problem is not programming. From a job security perspective, there’s no doubt that knowing how to code will help, but I am not convinced that every reporter would benefit. I myself don’t know personally any reporters who can code, and of reporters I read on a daily basis, I don’t see coding impacting what they do at all. Slate has a mighty nice redesign, but I don’t think Dave Weigel or Matt Yglesias had a hand in it.
My larger problem with this trend is that no one seems to recognize the enormous value that is the journalist’s core skill – being able to understand and rationalize information, then turn that into easily digestible content for people who can’t do the first part. Every startup has a blog, whitepapers, marketing content, a social media presence, and a PR team. People who value English ahead of C++ are still in demand, just ask any tech PR/marketing recruiter.
The comparison that I draw comes from a Sam Adams advertising campaign. Their marketing team loves to let everyone know that “everyone at Sam Adams learns how to brew beer.” In television commercials, they show a whole cast of characters from secretaries to executives brewing up some Boston Lager. But, it would be thoroughly ridiculous if Sam Adams brewing operation depended on the CFO and a few sales guys picking up shifts in the brewery. There’s a reason we specialize. It’s because it makes sense for individuals to have highly-honed skills in areas of need. Being able to do it all doesn’t necessarily make functional sense – “we want a rockstar” job openings be damned.
I do get the sense that some of this “learn to code” hysteria is being manufactured by pricey journalism schools under fire for not producing “hirable grads.” But giving journalism students a computer science education isn’t the only way to do that. I never thought about the job I have now when I was in J-school, but it’s fairly easy to see how one prepared me for the other. No coding necessary.