Don’t tell me what it’s not. Tell me what it IS

The war against negative characterization

Situation A: You’re covering a city council meeting and the council votes 4-1 to deny a development permit for a huge shopping center. The president of the local homeowners association, which has spent a year campaigning for this result, tells you, “I’m not unhappy” with the decision. What’s your next question?

Don't tell me what it's not. Tell me what it IS

Don't tell me what it's not. Tell me what it IS

Situation B: You’re a Metro editor, editing on a daily piece in which the reporter has written that “Mayor Sinestreau was not surprised” that the planning commission rejected his nomination of his brother-in-law to temporarily fill a vacant seat on the commission. What should you ask the reporter?

Response A: “Well, if you’re not unhappy, what ARE you?”

Response B: “Well, if the Mayor isn’t surprised, what IS he?”

Alas, these questions are rarely asked, and as a result newspaper copy is awash in sentences in which people express their feelings negatively rather than affirmatively. They do this because reporters are too often too lazy to ask enough questions to accurately characterize how sources feel about a development.

I hate this because it goes to the core of lousy writing, which is: lousy reporting–not asking enough questions to deeply understand how the people you interviewed really feel, and then having to rely on fat, general, unhelpful weasel words like…well, like these examples from the past couple months:

Gary Schrage, an accountant for the plant, attended Tuesday morning’s meeting in City Hall, 55 Madison St., and was not unhappy with the commission’s seven-year abatement recommendation.
— Indianapolis Star

Red Cross spokesman Charles Connor said the board was not unhappy with Evans’ handling of the hurricane crisis, “but had concerns about her management approach, and coordination and communication with the board.” It was the second time in three years that such feuding led to a leadership change after a national disaster.
–Associated Press

Indiana coach Rick Carlisle was not unhappy with the shot selection of Jackson and O’Neal after the loss, which dropped his team to 12-8.
–Providence Journal

…But he cited numbers from memory about the youth of the Titans, indicated he was not unhappy with the coaching staff nor the front office and said he was optimistic with another high draft pick his team will be able to start turning things around next season.
–The Tennessean

Russ says she was not unhappy at Sacramento’s top-rated station, but the chance to do deeper reporting was too alluring to pass up. “Public radio is my first love,” she says. “I feel more comfortable there with the more in-depth (reporting) and sound-rich experience…”
— Sacramento Bee

I know some holier-than-thous who claim that they love dandelions as much as any other plant in their yard. It’s not like I have never pretended to love something I don’t. Dandelions just aren’t one of those things. But this week I was not unhappy to find a few yellow blooms growing low among the blades of grass in my yard. How quickly winter changes our minds.
— Wichita Eagle, KS (columnist)

My fantasy is that somewhere a reporter will pull a thesaurus out of his pocket the next time somebody tells him they were not unhappy and demand: “Well, then, what WERE you? Did you feel blessed? Blissful? Blithe? Captivated? Cheerful? Chipper? Chirpy? Content? Convivial? Delighted? Ecstatic? Elated? Exultant? Flying high? Gay? Glad…?

A few other examples:


Often, people are too shy to say they expected something to happen, so they settle for being “not surprised”-or, at least, the reporters writing about them settle for it by the way they phrase the questions or refuse to follow up:

Although the ranger identified 16 companies operating without concessions, DOC ranger Ray Bellringer was not surprised, and he suspected there were many other illegal operators.
— Timaru Herald

The county manager said he was not surprised that the M&E required additional funding to continue. “From day one, it was anticipated that this would be phased in and that funding would come in phases,” he said.
— Newark Star-Ledger

Washington attorney Jeffrey Tenenbaum, who represents about 50 credit-counseling agencies, said he was not surprised at the number of proposed revocations and predicted more to come. But, he said, it was frustrating that the IRS has not yet given any counseling group a green light or issued guidelines on what groups must do to retain their tax-exempt status.
— Washington Post

Suggested badgering points: “Well, if you weren’t surprised, does that mean you anticipated this? That you awaited it? Envisaged it? Contemplated it? Forecast it? Foresaw it? Hoped for it? Saw it coming?” Sometimes “not surprised” will actually be the best the source can offer but he ought to be flogged before we settle.


Defense attorney Don Samuel said he was not upset by the ruling. “I feel we’ll find in jury questioning that many of them are aware of what happened in the federal trial,” he said.
— The Atlanta Journal – Constitution

Town Supervisor Paul Feiner has been trying to stop the secession movement by lowering the town’s tax bill to village residents while offering more public safety services in 2006. He also has proposed hiring a mediator to ease tensions between the villages and the unincorporated part of town.

Feiner was not upset that the study is moving forward, saying he believes the findings will favor the town.
— The Journal News (White Plains, NY)

A Grandview School District bus driver has been disciplined for accidentally leaving a kindergartner on a bus for several daytime hours this week.

. . . District officials said the driver, who had gotten back on the bus for an afternoon high school run, took the boy to Martin City Elementary after noticing his feet sticking into the aisle from a seat. Martin and the school principal were on hand when the mother came to pick up the boy. She was not upset, Martin said.
— Kansas City Star

“Not upset?” Even if you can’t get to the mom, you need to at least demand an affirmative description of a parent’s mood. Was Mom impassive? Imperturbed? Listless? Placid? Serene? Unruffled? Untroubled?


Sometimes, you just can’t trust anybody.

That’s what Cameron County Pct. 1 Constable Saul P. Ochoa said he has learned from having been part of former Sheriff Conrado Cantu’s administration.

At times, Ochoa found himself in the thick of events, some leading to federal racketeering charges against Cantu and Ochoa’s long-time friend, former Capt. Rumaldo Rodriguez.

Ochoa said he was not ashamed of having been in Cantu’s administration.

“There are a lot of men and women that want to do good,” he said. “If anybody is to be ashamed, it should be Conra….”
— Brownsville Herald

What the constable is doing here is using a rhetorical trick to avoid saying HOW he feels. Look at all the other possibilities: Suckered? Manipulated? Victimized? Maybe those are overblown descriptions but if you pelt the interview subject with enough affirmative characterizations he’ll eventually realize that he has to at least TRY to describe how he feels.


Watch how this negative characterization deflates a feature story:

Khaled Khalifa told this story about a child and a blanket.

The 11-year-old Latina could not see or hear and could barely speak. Abandoned in infancy by her parents, she has lived with foster families her entire life. No one would adopt her. She also suffers from a host of medical problems that send her regularly to the hospital.

“The blind child could touch the little animals and say their names,” Khalifa said softly. “It relaxed her.” Khalifa had come that day to Wright’s home hoping to collect more blankets. He was not disappointed.
— San Jose Mercury News

Okay, now the big revelation. In real time, I am going to examine how many times I used “not surprised” and “not unhappy” from 1985 to 2004. Swear to God I have never checked this, but I have a strong suspicion I may feel hypocritical.

(Five minutes later…)

Whew. Not one use of “not unhappy” and only two uses of “not surprised,” neither after 1989:

When Mahony was chosen to succeed Manning, who retired at age 75, Hawkes offered his resignation in what church officials characterized as a traditional courtesy to an incoming administration. Battaglia said Hawkes was not surprised when Mahony accepted.

The Rev. Rex Burns received a telephone call Monday night telling him to watch the 11 o’clock news: Convicted “Onion Field” killer Jimmy Lee Smith had messed up again. Burns was not surprised.

However, in the process of making that search I remembered another negative assertion: “Not alone”–one of the worst clichés in the newspaper business. Here’s a link to its place of honor I found three examples under my byline in 1987, 1988 and 1992:

Mr. Fix-It’s customers began learning that they were not alone after John Thymes came into possession of a list of several dozen of Mr. Fix-It’s customers. His wife spent days telephoning each one. They began to share stories. “We knew then that we had been had,” John Thymes said.

…He is not alone in having second thoughts.

I’ve got a surprise for you. We are not alone. In fact, we own this town. Last fall, the Los Angeles Times Poll telephoned 1,586 adults in Southern California and found out that 36% are natives-as many as the combined number of Southerners, Midwesterners and Easterners who live here. We’re twice the size of the group that immigrated here from Mexico, Central America, Asia and the Mideast.

Enough confessing. Go pester your sources. If this perks up your copy, I will not be surprised.

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