Big words

Last weekend we lamented the loss of words.
How they were stolen and multiplied and proliferated until they lost their meaning
and power
by those who didn’t understand what they meant
but did
perceive that they had meaning
and power.

I lament these words
stretched beyond their elasticity now floppy and loose
because it feels so hard to find meaning in the first place:
Like the arguments I had as a kid, in defense of big words
,that I can only win in retrospect,
where I would have said,
“the point isn’t to bludgeon you with their size*”
* though I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t that, a little
,”but that it’s amazing to find that one word,
that captures, that encompasses, that makes true
all the contradictions and nuance and confusion of an idea or an experience.”

That lets you escape the feeling that it hasn’t happened until you can name it.
Which I think was what I needed more than profanity*
* the words that didn’t need defended around that time.

And the lost words were like that,
essential to trying to understand something, to figure it out
but fuzzy. Foundational
even though we couldn’t quite pin down what they meant.
They could be two things at once, in two places at once.
but always aware of their presence.
And now their absence.

Memo for the week of August 22: Coffee shop newsrooms and name games with mosques and SEO

Me this week

Last week, I talked with Rhonda Jones-Gillespie, news editor at the Chicago Defender and I feel like I need to follow up with her.  It wasn’t until after our conversation that I realized why there seemed to be a disconnect around some of my questions.  While the Defender does report about African-American communities in Chicago, a big part of what they do, and what I didn’t really get, is ground city and national news stories in the African American experience in Chicago.  While I’ve been most interested in looking at how a story local to one community might connect with a broader audience, I’ve overlooked the opposite, but equally important, trajectory.  It’s one that journalists have been doing for a long time (though perhaps less so as news organizations become more resource bound) – taking a story and picking out the most important aspects for a local audience or looking at a broader policy’s impact on a particular community.

This week, I  was finally able to sit down with Icoi Johnson and Samuel Vega, the recipients of WBEZ’s Prizker Fellowship, which I had written about previously.  I found the fellows’ backgrounds and  outlooks to be pretty different, which was interesting and probably a good thing for WBEZ.  Vega, who is from Humboldt Park and seemed pretty involved in the community offered some interesting insight into WBEZ’s bureau in the neighborhood.  Vega said he  had noticed the storefront bureau, but had never been inside it until he toured it as part of his training for the fellowship.  He said it often appeared closed and that he was more familiar with the reporter who runs the bureau because of his coverage of events in Humboldt Park.  Vega’s anecdote indicates that connecting with different news  communities may be a little more complicated than simply setting up shop.

Coffee shop newsrooms – a cool idea but you have to pick the right shop

Perhaps a better approach might be the coffee shop newsroom experiments that Poynter wrote about extensively at the beginning of this month.  Placing a reporter in an already trafficked space like a coffee shop may make reporters more accessible to the general public than a space exclusive to the news organization.  Some of the benefits of putting reporters or “newsrooms” in coffee shops seem pretty cool: more transparency/accountability, more audience understanding of the reporting process, developing new sources, getting new framings for stories or new dimensions for stories of which the reporter is already aware and recruiting citizen journalists.

This week I had my own experience with reporting and coffee shops.  I often work in coffee shops because I find them more convenient, and often less distracting than heading down to the Medill Newsroom.  While I use them primarily for convenience, they can still be a good way to connect with sources.  However, you have to go to the right coffee shop.  In reporting a story about LGBTQA youth of color in Boystown and a parking policy proposed by some residents designed to deter the youth, I did a lot of writing in Lakeview coffee shops.  I usually went to one close to my house a little east of Boystown or one close to Boystown but seemingly catering to a more particular customer demographic.  I liked the coffee shops I chose because they were locally owned and independent, there was interesting art on the wall and employees sometimes seemed like they were hanging out with friends or family as much as they were serving customers, creating a casual, comfortable atmosphere.

But, because they were somewhat more expensive and closed around 10 p.m., they didn’t really attract customers who were young people of color coming to hang out in the neighborhood.  The night I spent writing at the Starbucks at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Clark Street, a wide range of customers came in, including folks who could have been sources for my story.  While I could have gone out on the streets searching for people who could tell me their experience of coming to the neighborhood, a common thread in what youth I had interviewed told me is that they often feel profiled by police and neighborhood residents.  Both residents and youth described sidewalk confrontations that escalated and didn’t lead to a productive dialog.  As a reporter, I didn’t want to contribute to these dynamics. Spaces like coffee shops are important for reporting across dynamics like the ones in Boystown because they’re more neutral.  People from a variety of backgrounds can be on equal footing in the coffee shop as patrons and engaged in the same activities, like working on a laptop.  Had I spent the entire quarter working at that Starbucks, I might have been able to meet some sources with a good insight into the dynamic in a way that developed out of a more organic conversation, over music or helping someone reach a power outlet) rather than cornering people on the street.  Also, the public nature of the coffee shop could have attracted other people into the conversation, adding multiple perspectives to the reporting and perhaps even bridging the resident/visitor divide.

My experience with diversity and neighborhood coffee shops may be more universal.  Kim Feller, author of “Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino“, wrote about diversity and coffee shop clientèle on the Colorlines website:

While there are still funky independents eking out a living on the retail margins, most coffeehouses and designer roasters are niche markets, like purveyors of artisan cheeses, hand-painted T-shirts and limited-edition sneakers. They appeal to those on the trendy, cutting edge and survive by exclusivity—by pleasing a small, loyal and financially privileged. Starbucks, on the other hand, has been able to risk expansion from urban business cores and upscale suburbs into more modest settings, where it often provides the only meeting place that is neither a noisy fast-food restaurant nor a bar and that is often surprisingly multiracial.

Mosques and SEO

In terms of stories that sit across a cultural divide, nothing’s been bigger, or representative of journalism’s struggles to bridge those gaps, than reporting about the controversy over plans for a Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center towers destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks.  One idea that’s likely inflamed the debate is the use of the phrase “ground zero mosque” in the media, which suggests, incorrectly, that the community center is being constructed at the site of the former towers.  Mark Coddington at Nieman Labs has a good rundown of what a number of media critics have been saying about the use of this term.  While some blame cable news, others point to SEO.  As a term gains traction with the public, online news websites have to choose between using an incorrect term or making their content more difficult to find.  Coddington wrote:

Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride zeroed in on that idea of search-engine optimization, noting that the AP is being punished for their stand against the term “ground zero mosque” by not appearing very highly on the all-important news searches for that phrase. In order to stay relevant to search engines, news organizations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold, she concluded. In response, McBride suggested pre-emptively using factchecking resources to nip misconceptions in the bud. “Now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions — even when we know better — we should be prepared,” she said.

Coddington also pointed out that Online Journalism Review’s Brian McDermott pinpointed our news consumption patterns as the culprit for the proliferation of incorrect terms for things.  As we move more quickly from media to media, terms like “ground zero mosque” have more sticking power than Park51 or the Cordoba Center.

The tough choice of deciding between content discovery and accuracy is the same one I wrote about regarding the phrase “sissy bounce” and New Orleans artists’ distaste for the term.  In a pretty interesting, but unrelated thread, Anthony Neal, a scholar who studies Black popular culture, posted some tracks from New Orleans in the 1960s that refer to a dance called “The Sophisticated Cissy.”  Still, even if the term “sissy” may have some interesting connections to New Orleans musical history, it’s important to remember that contemporary artists don’t use the term to identify their work.

Whose line is it?

Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to a number of reporters about reporting outside of their neighborhoods or experience.  One common theme that I’ve heard is the importance of using people’s own language to describe places and institutions in their communities.  Patrick Barry, a senior scribe working with LISC/Chicago, said journalists documenting community development projects had to rethink their use of language when reporting on the low-to-middle-income communities that were the focus of the organization’s New Communities Program.  Even if a reporter’s impression of a neighborhood was that it was a “bombed out ghetto,” Barry said, they needed to be aware that neighborhood residents didn’t use that language to describe their neighborhood and didn’t necessarily think of their community with such an exclusively negative framing.  “We have learned a lot from neighborhood people about how to talk about places,” Barry said.

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a story about New Orleans rappers Big Freedia and Katey Red.  The print version of the story about Freedia ran under the clever headline like “Neither Straight Nor Out of Compton” (I can’t find my copy of the magazine to confirm the exact title).   However, the web version uses the (apparently) search-engine-optimized title “Sissy Bounce, New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap” in the title of the web page (the text that shows at the top of one’s browser window) and “New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap” on the page itself.  These different versions of the title reflect, perhaps, reflect the contentious use of the term “sissy bounce” to describe the music of Big Freedia and other gay, transgender, lesbian or bisexual rappers who perform New Orleans’ signature hip-hop style of “bounce.”

Jonathan Dee, the story’s author describes bounce like this:

Bounce itself has been around for about 20 years. Like most hip-hop varietals, it’s rap delivered over a sampled dance beat, but it has a few characteristics that give it a distinctively regional sound: it’s strictly party music, its beat is relentlessly fast and its rap quotient tends much less toward introspection or pure braggadocio than toward a call-and-response relationship with its audience, a dynamic borrowed in equal measure from Mardi Gras Indian chants and from the dawn of hip-hop itself. Many, if not most, bounce records announce their allegiance by sampling from one of just two sources: either Derek B.’s “Rock the Beat” or an infectious hook known as the “Triggaman,” from a 1986 Showboys record called “Drag Rap.” (That’s “drag” not as in cross-dressing but as in the theme to the old TV show “Dragnet.”)

Katey Red is quick to point out that LGBT artists in New Orleans are part of the larger bounce music culture, not a separate genre.  “Ain’t no such thing as ‘sissy bounce,’ ” she said. “It’s bounce music. It’s just sissies that are doing it.”  In this video interview from Fader Magazine, Freedia expresses a similar sentiment:

Bounce music generally is just bounce music in New Orleans and you may have a gay rapper that does bounce music and you have straight rappers as well.  So I just really want to clarify that bounce music is not sissy bounce it’s bounce generally and you have some sissies that represent bounce music, you know, like myself, Sissy Nobby, Katey Red .  You know, there’s a few more.  It’s not called sissy bounce at home, it’s called bounce music.

The story does explain that most artists object to the phrase.  “They have no desire to be typed within, or set apart from, bounce culture; and indeed, within New Orleans itself, they mostly are not,” Dee wrote.  And it also explains the origin of the label “sissy bounce,” New Orleans music writer Alison Fensterstock.  Still, the nuanced perspective of how the artists view gender and sexuality as part of their identities and the identity of their musical community falls under a web page title that acknowledges “their bookings elsewhere in the country are founded increasingly on the novelty of their sexual identities.”  Even if the artists eschew the term “sissy bounce,” the Times seems aware that people may search for information about this music using this term, and they want to make sure that people can find the article.

This forefronts a challenge for journalists when choosing words in their stories – should one use the language of those most involved in or affected by a story or terminology that may be more widely used?  Does using the popular language for something legitimize language that doesn’t accurately frame an idea?    The best approach is probably the one Dee took in the story about New Orleans rap, to explain disputed language, its origins and how it reflects the nuance of the subject.  This is possible, and even adds depth to a longer article, but can a writer do the same thing in a daily news article?

Being aware of and taking the time to explain complicated stories behind language are important obligations for journalists that will only become more difficult in the age of online news.  As more and more people seek news and information on the web and find it through search rather than visiting the news organization’s web site directly, there is greater pressure for journalists to include widely-used language in stories to make the stories discoverable.  One solution may be to link phrases in the story to pages that describe the origin of the phrases.  The New York Times website already allows users to access definitions of words in articles by clicking on the word.  Linking such functionality to user-contributed content, like urban dictionary, may give added insight into the origin of language used in stories, though it could make it more convoluted.

Photo by Incase via Flickr. It’s captioned as a photo of Big Freedia, but the performer more closely resembles Katey Red.

Asking about animal ingredients in Spanish


We were in Miami 2 days ago and were pretty excited to make sandwiches with Cuban bread.  Unfortunately, a lot of Cuban bread has lard as an ingredient.  I struggled to ask if bread contained lard.  I found on the web that the Spanish word for lard is manteca (or perhas grasa de cerdo).

My high school spanish question should have been: ¿Hay manteca en este pan?