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updated: 8/2/2012 9:05 AM

The worthwhile risk of taking a discomforting call

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You never know in this job who you're going to be talking to when you pick up the telephone, caller ID or no caller ID.

It may be a cantankerous old curmudgeon, angry because you won't publish his nasty, spiteful, ill-mannered personal attacks, who calls you a raft of nasty, spiteful, ill-mannered names, interrupts every time you start to try to explain yourself and then hangs up in a final fury of vituperation. Or, less than 10 minutes later, it may be a politely assertive news reader who holds an uncomfortable mirror up to your prejudices and makes you a better, more incisive editor in the process.

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I experienced them both this week. The former needs no more attention than the head-shaking chuckle I shared with my wife in the evening as we sorted out our respective oddities at the end of the workday. The latter, though ... now it has value. It bears reflection not just for myself but for other writers -- and perhaps for you as well.

The impetus for the conversation was a Daily Herald story that the caller liked in general. But it included a reference -- or, as you'll see, a lack of reference -- that, as a high-school guidance counselor and an alumni volunteer for her university alma mater, she finds more than a little off putting.

She called my attention to a line deep in our profile of the new principal of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, and asked me to explain why we described the principal's impressive list of degrees but did not say where they were from. She had looked them up online and knew that they -- the University of Wisconsin and Southern Illinois University -- were no slouches. "I bet if the degrees were from Harvard or Yale or Northwestern or some other so-called prestigious school, you would have said so," she chided.

And I had to allow that she might be right. Although I hadn't talked to the story's author, I had to admit that if I were writing or editing the story myself, I could easily see how, in the interest of succinctness, I might reason that it was the degrees, not the school, that demonstrate the principal's qualifications. But, gulp, I also had to admit that if I knew the degrees were from certain big-name universities, I might have worked them in and found some other place in the story to be succinct. When I emailed the story's author, Marie Wilson, to ask her about it, she indicated the same thing.

"I bet she's right that the fancier-name schools are mentioned more, and it may not even be intentional by the writers," Wilson wrote. Indeed, I think it's not. But my caller's point cut deeper than that. By making some school names dispensable and others not, we send a subtle -- and mistaken -- message about the comparative value of certain institutions, she said. That message seeps into the prejudices of bright, young college-bound high school students, who think that they must enter only certain prestige universities in order to be successful. That does a disservice both to them and to other excellent schools.

Whether we name a certain school in a standard personality profile may not be the most dramatic decision we face as writers or editors, but the subject is important on at least a couple levels. For one, it forces us to be more careful in how we refer to universities. But, it also shows how seemingly routine choices can have significant consequences, and that can apply to a whole host of subjects and details that may work their way into our stories. In short, it reminds us not to forget to think, even about seemingly small details.

I'll be honest, I don't need to be scolded by self-righteous whiners spewing an array of names they may think I haven't been called before. But a reminder like this is worth the risk of picking up the phone.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is a Daily Herald assistant managing editor. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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