Words are powerful things.
Their meaning often changes with the way they are used, and they often mean different things in different contexts and to different people. Which sometimes gets us in trouble.
Larry Vellequette, a Blade business writer, found this out this month when he wrote a story about two brothers who opened a store devoted to selling University of Michigan and Ohio State merchandise, a shop he called a "proudly schizophrenic store."
That did not sit well with Jim Bayer, who wrote a passionate letter to the reporter, begging him to refrain from "the rude, crude misuse of schizophrenic" as a pop culture term.
"Please refrain from adding to the stigma that defines those afflicted with mental illness in our society, " Mr. Bayer wrote, adding, "At least learn the proper definition of the affliction."
This is not academic to Mr. Bayer, whose "bright, classy, stunning, and very intelligent" daughter's life was changed forever four years ago when she was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia.
The reporter defended himself by arguing that using the term to describe "two or more diametrically opposed objects or forces sharing the same space" has been common for many years.
That didn't please Mr. Bayer, who still found it "disrespectful and hurtful" and suggested the reporter find a better word.
Your ombudsman agrees with the reader. Christine Cooper, the executive director of FAME, the Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere, said to use schizophrenic as an adjective is not only tasteless, "it reinforces the perception that schizophrenia is some sort of personality quirk, not serious mental illness."
"I guess we've got a long way to go," she said.
The reporter should have found a better word, and his editors should have changed the one he used. Mental illness still carries a stigma in this society, and as a society, we still are sometimes insufficiently insensitive. Yes, we use "schizo" all the time.
But putting it in print was wrong. Being creative doesn't have to mean being insensitive.
• Speaking of words, an anonymous reader questioned Jim Provance's use of "controversial" in his Aug. 24 front-page story about Ohio's qualifying for Race to the Top education money.
"I didn't see any information in the reporting that the program itself was controversial," the reader wrote. The reader also felt that "the just say no Republicans" are labeling everything the President does "controversial" in order to turn people against it.
That may or may not be true of the Republicans … but in this case Mr. Provance's use of the term was correct. As his story made clear, the program is controversial, in that some think the required reforms aren't worth the potential extra cash. (In Michigan, where I live, the "Race to the Top" program is especially controversial … because Washington declined to give our state any money at all.)
There is a growing tendency, however, to use the term "controversial" to mean "clearly bad."
This should be avoided.
• Silvija Newcomer of Adrian, Mich., took issue with a Blade editorial referring to Social Security as a "trust fund," which she said was inaccurate and highly misleading.
Editor David Kushma disagrees and notes that the Social Security Web site refers repeatedly to the accounts, which are managed by the U.S. Treasury Department, as trust funds and says that their operations are overseen by a board of trustees.
That seems pretty definitive to me.
• Lenny Jankowski thinks The Blade runs too many liberal and not enough conservative columnists on its Pages of Opinion. But he is puzzled by my weekly column on Michigan issues.
He isn't sure whether it is conservative or liberal. I am happy that he feels that way because my column mostly isn't. It is meant to be more like a Behind the News story, explaining what's going on with politicians, government, and occasionally, just plain interesting people in Michigan. If it has a bias, it is in favor of common sense.
• Mario Goveia, a frequent and colorful critic of The Blade, raises an interesting question: Are columnists and letter-writers allowed to use blatant falsehoods in print?
I will answer this in detail, in my next column.
Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office: 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or e-mail me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don't leave me an e-mail address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.
Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.