Journalism Notes: When Words are Unwise

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The Columbia Journalism Review runs a regular weekly section called The Lower Case, in which they highlight “headlines editors probably wish they could take back.” These humorous examples of unintended meaning and odd juxtaposition make for a fun, quick chuckle at how sometimes things don’t quite come across the way we mean them to.

But what happens when our signals get crossed and it’s not so funny? What happens when we say something without thinking it through and it hurts someone deeply? What do we do when in the ardency of making our point we make fools of ourselves or offend others?

Much like a headline that has been crystalized in print, once our words are out there we can’t take them back.

I know—this is not news to anyone. Yet it seems a lesson that, speaking for myself, I often have to revisit.

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I have learned that I am going to hurt people. I am going to offend people. Sometimes, in my pain or anger, I do it on purpose. I have had to apologize many times to my wife for things I knew were hurtful when I said them.

Other times, I don’t mean to hurt people with my words, but somehow still I do.

The book of James tells us, “We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man” (3:2).

I am far from perfect.

James goes on to write in the same chapter:

Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire. (5-6)

Words can hurt, man. I don’t care what people say about sticks and stones.

So what can we do? First, I have to be slow to speak and quick to listen. Working in academe, I have a lot of opportunities to talk. I need to find—to make—more opportunities to listen.

And when my stupid mouth gets me in trouble, all I know to do is to try to make amends quickly. Apologize. Ask for forgiveness. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t happen quickly. And in those cases, all I can do is wait.

Words can hurt, and words can help heal. But there are no guarantees.

If you find yourself on the other side of the coin, which we all will, I implore you to also be quick to forgive.

I suppose this isn’t the most scholarly of all posts, but I’ve seen lots of people get offended in the halls of the ivory tower over the years. Maybe it’s a good reminder for us all.

Or maybe I’m just preaching to myself this week.

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Jeff Neely

Jeff Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa, where he teaches courses in newswriting, feature writing, multimedia journalism and literary journalism. His research has examined the role narrative and literary journalism can play in broadening our understanding of various issues and experiences life brings our way, from identity formation to environmental ethics. He has also studied how youth journalism programs, where young people tell their own stories and those of their peers, can help strengthen local communities. He is currently working with local non-profit outreach organizations to build a youth journalism program called Tampa Youth Voice. Prior to entering academe, Jeff worked as a writer and editor for various publications in and around the Tampa Bay area, as well as a case manager and resource development specialist for the Florida foster care system.

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