I have grown, over time, to be very skeptical about what is considered obvious in the way of judgment calls and to try to maintain some humility in assessing the work and judgments of others. "Judge not, lest ye be judged," says the Good Book, after all. But it's not fear I'm operating on so much as the recognition of what a moving target being right is.
I once used to rail self-righteously, for instance, about the uneducated nincompoops who used impact as a verb, who typed under way or back yard (when used as a noun) as one word, who used insure when they meant ensure and who had no idea where to place the adverb only. I still, alas, think writers should not be allowed to use the word comprise without a license.
And grammatical snobbery in the journalism world is nothing compared to the arrogance that can surface when something as nebulous as "news judgment" comes into play. I often say that news judgment is defined as whatever the boss's spouse says it is, which I admit is a bit cynical and extreme but I repeat here to emphasize the very personal nature and imprecise science of determining what people want to know and how they want to learn it.
I am occasioned of these thoughts (and, yes, both The American Heritage Dictionary and Webster's authorize occasion as a transitive verb) by a letter that arrived today from a reader complaining that we ruined his otherwise decent Sunday morning with our Page 2 story about the apparent drunken-driving death of a Dallas Cowboys player.
"Remember, positive articles for SUNDAY!!" the writer insisted, urging us to "think" and steer clear of murders, fires, shootings, tragedy and "death count."
His missive followed only by a few days a similarly outraged scolding from a reader who couldn't believe the "brain candy" we'd forced upon suburbanites last Thursday when we devoted a third of our front page to the accomplishments of a high-achieving Hersey High School student while "burying" inside the story of a state senator from Chicago caught trying to board an airplane at O'Hare with a gun and ammunition.
"Are you insane?" he wrote. "This is not a political issue. This is a journalism issue. What are your priorities? Where is your journalistic integrity?"
Phew. I can't vouch for any of our editors' sanity, but I can say with some certainty that none of us would have thought we were putting our suburban newspaper's integrity on the line in spotlighting the accomplishments of a suburban teenager over the embarrassment of a Chicago politician. But that's us. And I guess it's also the nature of whatever this thing is that we call news judgment.
In a response to the complaining reader, Managing Editor Jim Baumann emphasized the balance we seek between what he called the "yin and yang" of uplifting stories about people and serious stories about crime, government and general wrongdoing. Ultimately, finding that balance is a daily mission for us, and the answer isn't nearly as obvious to us as it may seem to others. From childhood, we are led to believe that a clear formula exists for determining what stories should appear on the front page, which ones should appear inside and, for that matter, which ones are even stories at all. But that is not so. We certainly hope and intend that the news decisions we make hit on the topics that most delight, engage and inform you, but we have to freely admit that, as its name implies, news judgment is a judgment call.
That doesn't mean I won't ask to see your license if you write a letter using comprise, but I do promise I won't question your sanity.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.