Avoiding the word “normal”

Very few words are as telling about your worldview as the word “normal.”

I think a lot about the power of words. I started thinking about the interpretation of language in English Literature class, when I was taught to attempt to illustrate every possible understanding of a particular noun phrase to build a passable case for my interpretation of the author’s intentions.

Most of the time, I felt I was analysing why the curtains were blue.

But it gave me an appreciation for the power of words, and the improbable possibility of deriving the author’s “attitudes and values” from their choice of language. What you say and don’t say are strong indicators of who you are and what you believe.

So I believe we should stop using the word “normal” as an adjective, especially when we’re describing people and their traits.

“Normal” is a subjective term. It suggests there is some collective sense of normalcy, and connotes a value system where deviance from the standard is somehow unsavory or intolerable.

Sometimes it’s okay to use the term, particularly when such norms are fundamental: the belief in a free press to oversee and report on the government is a fundamental norm in American society.

Most of the time, though, it simply demonstrates the author’s narrow-mindedness and lack of exposure to the world.

I once called out a fellow student of journalism for describing a desire to hear a “normal accent” in a video featuring an obviously-fake British accent; while the voice was horrible, the idea of a “normal” accent only exists if you believe there is somehow a standard accent that’s desirable, and usually it’s your own.

Meanwhile, you imply you believe all other accents are less desirable, and you — epitomized by your accent — are higher status than the other people who speak different from how you do.

I don’t believe this particular individual meant any harm. But using the phrase “a normal accent” conveys a particular system of values, like using phrases such as “a normal person” to describe an able-bodied individual, or “a normal color” to describe someone’s race and ethnicity.

It doesn’t mean it isn’t common experience for you. But believing that the human attributes familiar to you is “normal” implies, at best, a naive understanding of the world around you; at worst, a narrow-minded, bigoted and regressive perspective of the rich fabric of humanity.

We have perfectly acceptable alternatives to communicate a better meaning than “normal”: common, usual, typical. It is not normal for someone in the United States to be white or Caucasian: it is common. It is not normal for black and African-American communities to be disproportionately impacted by U.S. governments, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system: it is typical.

My second lesson in journalism school was how to shorten phrases to convey meaning more compactly. This includes replacing long phrases such as “located at the intersection of Johnson and Madison Avenues” with “near Johnson and Madison.”

But my first lesson at Medill was accuracy is the single, overriding value in journalism.

In an Internet age where word limits are no longer defined by column inches on a page, we can afford to be more accurate by using more words. The shortcut afforded by “normal” is no longer appropriate.

Analytics data can and should be used to improve reporting.

Consumers are generally aware that their web interactions are tracked, and their interests and demographics are calculated. It’s time for editors and writers used that information to improve their reporting for their readers and audiences.

The role of journalism is has always been to inform people about what they need to know. For much of the profession’s history, this has been executed as what we think they need to know. The Internet has shifted that dynamic, as tracking and user profiling has become refined to the point of individuality.

Publications now need to justify their content — and their own existence — to their readers. I argue that readers no longer care about or respect the ‘division between church and state’ that previously divided the editorial and business side of a publication’s operations. Most readers don’t really care about how the media product is created.

Consider a fast-food restaurant: I highly doubt that most customers at McDonalds care about the labor division and food-preparation departments at the restaurant. As far as the customer is concerned, McDonalds is the name of a black box: an order is placed into the box, and the corresponding food items are delivered out of it. What happens inside the box is not the concern or consideration of the consumer.

Most media consumers do not care about a division between a publication’s editorial and business teams. They might say it’s a nice thing to have when told it’s to prevent ownership concerns from interfering with fair, impartial coverage, but I’m going to guess that most already believe that news sources are biased towards their owners anyway.

And if these consumers know about web analytics and demographic targeting (and a fair number do), then as far as they’re concerned, the publication already knows about them. Consumers don’t care that the data might only be held by the business and advertising departments, and editorial staff might not have access to demographic data about their online readers.

To the average reader, there’s no differentiation between The New York Times’ editorial staff, opinion staff, and business staff: it’s all The New York Times.

Given that this is how people are used to interacting with corporations and businesses, it makes no sense for editors and writers for a news publication to be kept in the dark about their online readers’ demographics.

The concern may be that having analytics and traffic data might start a war-for-the-most-clicks, without regard or consideration of an article’s depth of reporting — a fight between quantity and quality. This is a valid consideration. An ill-thought and misguided implementation of web analytics information into a community of editors and writers may lead to them believing that the numbers are the key to success. They’re not.

But taking advantage of analytics information about readers does not necessarily have to lead to an arms race for traffic numbers and a slippery-slope degradation into clickbait journalism, in the same way that newspaper editors knowing about circulation numbers didn’t always lead to sensationalist reporting.

Analytics information can serve as an additional and previously unavailable source to make decisions about coverage and editorial angles. Editors can improve stories to specifically target their reader’s actual interests and needs, rather than their own perception and assumptions about them.

Doing this means a new balance that must be found. Any publication that successfully pulls up the integration of analytics into the newsroom needs a team of editors who understand data and what it says, and can navigate through the chasm of potential problems to bring out the best of web analytics, while avoiding the pitfalls of quantity-over-quality writing.

Regarding the future of journalism

I’m experimenting with a series of posts regarding the future of the journalism industry.

I’m probably underqualified to write this as a second-year undergraduate journalism student, but I’m also told to say something whenever “something doesn’t feel quite right,” so here goes: the journalism industry is in a critical condition.

There. I said it. We’ve all known the journalism industry has been dying for some time, but I — having spent a sum of zero hours working in any bona fide media outlet — hereby declare the industry as near death. I recognize it’s a pretty bold claim.

Before the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, I was hesitant to make such a point. I knew many people were going to disagree with me, and I was reasonably certain they were right; while newspapers were suffering from a slow and seemingly inevitable death, the news and journalism industry as a whole seemed to be doing all right. It certainly wasn’t the heyday of journalism, but it was all right.

Now, though, it’s become clear: the journalism industry has failed to live up to its role in this elective democracy known as the United States. Whatever your political views and affiliation, the journalism and news industry has failed you.

I firmly believe nothing is more fundamental to a healthy, functioning democracy than a well-informed electorate. The role of journalism — regardless of how it appears or who or what may be playing it — is to inform, educate, and empower the people.

Since I entered the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications over a year ago, I’ve been thinking about the future of the journalism industry, and ways to solve the problems with the model of journalism as it exists today. In these series of posts, I’ll share my thoughts, and I invite you to contribute your views and expertise to this discussion.

It’s time we worked out what this industry should look like in the 21st century.

We need new data privacy legislation, because Apple’s getting away with eroding your privacy

A sign at the Apple Store Union Square today. Apple claims all rights to use your image however they want, without your consent or permission. Photo by me.

I get that your personal data privacy protection probably isn’t high on your list of political priorities. It certainly isn’t high on my list. But it’s something that we need to talk about, because we’re witnessing the slow and gradual erosion of personal privacy as technology companies — fearless of public regulation—move into ever more personal and private spaces, while disguising the fact they do so.

Consider this sign at the Apple Store Union Square.

Please be advised:

Your voice and appearance may be recorded while you are visiting the Apple Store today. By entering, you are granting Apple Inc. and its partners permission to use your recorded likeness in all media, in perpetuity.

Thank you.

What? Why is this? What does this mean?

It’s a carefully crafted message, meant to alleviate your fears and anxieties rather than provoke them. They could have communicated a similar meaning in a way that would trigger our concerns:

Please be advised:

You and all of your actions will be recorded and stored while you are in our store. By entering, you’ve granted unlimited and irrevocable consent to us and anyone we choose to use you and your image in any advertising or media we choose—forever.

Thank you.

I hope that sounded a little scarier.

Apple’s sign is a wonderful piece of communication design. “Your voice and appearance” sounds more benign than “you and your actions,” even though there isn’t much of a difference — what else could you reasonably do in an Apple Store?

“Apple Inc. and its partners” also sounds much more friendly than “us and whomever we choose,” even though Apple hasn’t listed their partners or explained how they’re chosen. And “all media” is vague enough to not catch attention, even though Apple doesn’t release any media forms other than its own advertising.

This is not okay. Apple Stores exist to sell Apple’s products, and provide services to support those products. Apple Stores do not exist as opportunities for Apple to use its customers as part of their own marketing materials.

While I fully expect that Apple will be respectful of our privacy (because it’ll be bad for its brand image if it doesn’t), this is still an area of serious concern. The business incentive to use these images in advertising and tracking is far too great.

The realm of determining what constitutes as private and public — and therefore what is and isn’t fair game for businesses to exploit for their own advertisements — is something to be determined by the people, not by the corporations. Our political process is designed to fulfil that specific function.

I’m not expecting Congress or any of the state legislatures to propose and pass any concrete legislation now about privacy. But this is something that you need to know about.

You need to think about privacy and determine how you feel about your private life, and how you should be protected from the businesses trying to take advantage of you.

Then, when the issues comes up again (and I’ll bet you it will), you’ll be able to engage your political representatives about it.

Hate speech is free speech.

Demonstrations in Berkeley on Feb. 1, 2017 after protests against the scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right speaker and editor of Breitbart News. While hate speech is free speech, property destruction and arson aren’t. This brilliant photo by Joe Parks on Flickr.

I was in San Francisco when Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley, and I found out about his scheduled speech after protestors on campus began to get violent, as my Twitter feed exploded with news.

Over the last week, debates have been rolling throughout my social circles about whether or not shutting down Yiannopoulos, an outspoken far-right speaker” and also editor of Breitbart News, was a violation of free speech.

“Hate speech is not free speech,” one group cries.

“Free speech is dead,” cries the others.

And, annoyingly, I’m inclined to side with the conservatives and Republicans this time.

Despite what the “hate speech is not free speech” group believes, hate speech is not an exception to the free speech clause of the First Amendment. There’s a brilliant piece in the Washington Post about it, and the ACLU also agrees.

I think it’s an unfortunate reality. Hate speech is often violent, hateful and intolerant. It goes against every value that I believe in, and I’m part of two communities in the United States that are often the target of hateful speech.

Like physical violence, verbal attacks can destroy a person’s health and well-being, as I believe none of us should have our identities, beliefs, and backgrounds violated. It’s disgusting.

But the First Amendment protects speech, offensive or not. It’s true that the First Amendment does not protect all speech (or else lying in a court could be protected under this ideology), but hate speech is not established as an exception. As the ACLU puts it, “how much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most.”
The purpose of the freedom of speech is to allow for the unfettered, unobstructed expression of all ideas. Any restriction upon the right to the freedom of speech is a limitation upon our ability to discuss and deliberate ideas to progress towards a better world.

With the perfect hindsight of time, we can look back at events in United States history and appreciate their struggle. The abolition of slavery. The empowerment of women. The repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The fight against Japanese internment.

But these steps of progression would not have happened if such opinions and views had been silenced by an unsympathetic and oppressive majority.

And, so, hate speech is protected by the freedom of speech.

But — in a glimmer of hope for the progressives fighting against hate speech — nothing in First Amendment prohibits or restricts your right to express your believe that hate speech should not be protected.

Saying “hate speech should not be protected” and persuading others of your beliefs is exactly the point of the First Amendment.

But don’t disguise your opinion as a fact, because—at best—it’s an alternative fact.

“Hate speech is free speech,” I say. “But it shouldn’t be.”

Updated March 18, 2017: I found this article by Julia Serano, which argues a slightly different point from my own. I agree with every one of the points made, which is why I’m linking to Julia’s Medium post here.

This is a terrible idea.

Don’t do this. Screenshot by TechCrunch.

TechCrunch is reporting that Charter Communication’s Spectrum service encouraged people to change the WiFi passwords to show their support for the Super Bowl, scheduled to take place in two weeks.

I’m going to repeat what the article said: this is a terrible idea. Don’t do this.

As I write this post, the tweet has since been deleted.

Probably because it’s a terrible idea.



President Donald Trump

The Executive Residence of the White House. Image by Daniel Schwen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons


WASHINGTON (AP) — Pledging to empower America’s “forgotten men and women,” Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States Friday, taking command of a deeply divided nation and ushering in an unpredictable era in Washington. His victory gives Republicans control of the White House for the first time in eight years.

As I stepped out of my apartment doors this morning, the 45th president of the United States of America turned from a hypothetical legal assumption into a fact. Donald Trump is now president of the United States.

He’s the commander-in-chief of the world’s largest military force and 6,970 nuclear weapons (second in the world, after Russia’s 7,300). He’s in charge of a federal executive bureaucracy of 2.06 million employees. He’s the President.

I feel very strongly about Donald Trump. It’s nearly all negative. But regardless of how I feel, Donald Trump has been sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, and I cannot deny that the constitutional precedents for his election as President has been met.

Dick Durbin, my senator from Illinois, put this excellently in a Medium post.

My presence is an acknowledgement that once again America has achieved what so many nations have failed to do: peacefully transition to new leadership.

This is true. The model of American democracy only works when the people of the United States obey and respect the constitution and the rule of law of the United States.

Our society has a procedure for correcting problems in the laws than govern us, and it’s Congress, the constitutionally established federal legislative branch. Congress, along with our state legislatures, has the power to make laws, amend laws, and repeal laws, and it is responsible for doing so in a manner with the best interests of society in accordance with the requirements of our legal system and our Constitution.

Article I. Section I. All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States…

My strong dislike for the Republican Party has been based on the blatant obstructionism of Republicans of any meaningful legislation because of their opposition to Barack Obama as our president. But if the Democratic Party does the same thing with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, then I will be sorely disappointed with all of our politicians, regardless of party affiliation, who represent us in Washington, D.C.

I can appreciate that some people felt as strongly about the election of Barack Obama eight years ago as I do now about the election of Donald Trump. But I value our country’s civics, governance, rule of law, and republican democracy far more than my strong dislike for the 45th president.

And so, in a manner similar to Dick Durbin, I accept the constitutional truth that Donald Trump is now president of the United States. I will support the President “when he is right, and I will oppose him with every fiber of my being when he is wrong.”