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The Power of the Written Word

From the time I learned to read, I have loved the written word. It came as no surprise to anyone when the twists and turns of life led me to a job as a reporter after I retired from the military. I'd done a lot of writing while I was in the Army, but there wasn’t a lot of art or creativity involved in writing op plans, regulations and military lesson plans. The job of staff writer on a newspaper challenged me on a different level. In the news business it was imperative that the writer present both sides of an issue without obvious prejudice. The more I wrote, the more I came to appreciate just how critical it was to report not “just the facts” but to put them in context as well.

These days it seems that the standards for journalism, at least in some venues, are slipping. Writers for every Internet service seem to have turned to writing headlines that are more titillating than they are accurate. Headlines such as "Was It Suicide?" or "Dog Mauls Man" may be attention-grabbers, but they can be extremely misleading and in many cases that is no accident. A sub-head to the suicide headline might say "Officials investigate death of (insert famous person's name)." Those two lines taken individually seemingly are innocuous, but used together leave the reader believing someone suspects that the famous person actually killed himself. In fact there may be no reason to suspect suicide, but the artful phrasing of the headlines likely will start a lot of unnecessary and often hurtful speculation.

The same can be said for the dog headline especially if a sub-head read "34-year-old hospitalized in critical condition." We all know exactly how the reading public would react to those two lines.  Those who bother to read the rest of the story learn that the dog was protecting his handicapped owner from a brutal attack by that man. Then the dog is recognized as a hero. Was it wrong to write that the dog mauled the man? In a time where too few people read past the headline, it may not have been wrong, but I would call it irresponsible.

Technology has given all of us the ability to communicate with large numbers of people in an instant. No longer do we need to call someone to share good news or a juicy bit of gossip. We can simply text all of our contacts at one time, or we can tweet a synopsis of the story to all our followers. Many of us old-timers remember the day when we didn't know who won at a distant show for several days, or in some cases until the Review came out.  Now it is possible for us to know as soon as the judge points a finger. It can be very exciting, thanks to the written word and speed-of-light communications.

But the ability to share news in an instant carries with it a certain amount of responsibility -- the responsibility to get it right. Not only are we in a rush to share, we now have a tendency to write in an abbreviated form and omit certain key bits of information, forgetting that the reader can't fill in the blanks. If I write a story for the newspaper, my editor will  check my facts and read it over to make sure there are no obvious questions left unanswered. Those who write for the Internet may or may not have that luxury; they have to be the first to get the story online.

Instant communication is, in my mind at least, both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it enhances our everyday lives, keeping us up-to-date on the latest news, weather and traffic reports, even dog show results; a curse because people tend to believe the written word -- every written word.  So if the information disseminated happens to be wrong? Well, you get the picture.

Just as it is impossible to un-ring a bell, so is it impossible to retract an impression created by inaccurate reporting. If a tweet goes out saying someone saw the fire chief removing cash from a boot during a Muscular Dystrophy Association Fill-The-Boot campaign, no amount of follow-up clarification will clear the chief's name in the minds of some people. So  I believe that those of us who communicate electronically need to step back just a bit and consider the effect of our messages.

In the days when you actually had to write and mail a letter to someone, you had time to think about what you wrote and perhaps reconsider your message. Perhaps we should all take that same time to consider the ripple effects that our hastily-sent tweet or email can have, before we hit "Send."