I’m dashing this off on a Tuesday evening, and I just saw this sentence in a story on foxnews.com:

“Some 20 to 25 ‘Tonight Show’ staffers were laid off Friday and Leno took a sizable pay cut to reportedly to [sic] spare additional job cuts. Producers were also reportedly given the option to take pay cuts or lose their jobs.”

Forget about the extra “to” in “…to reportedly to spare…”  That’s a typo, not an indication of a lack of rhetorical savvy. And forget that the writer has split an infinitive. It’s no longer a grievous matter to boldly go into split infinitude. Neither of these lapses are really a sign of naiveté, where journalism is concerned. They are just matters of sloppiness or poor grammar. Our real issue here has to do with the fact that the word “reportedly” is being bandied about in an article that is by a news outlet that most Americans deem to be a serious journalistic franchise.

Keep in mind, now, that the scribe who is penning these words is a “reporter.”

“Reportedly” is one of those waffle words that thrive in tabloids, gossip rags, and other merely semi-legitimate media. When, in an article, it rears its head, it means that the writer hopes to be relieved of the hard work, and the honest steps, of attributing a statement to its legitimate source. The writer stated, “…Leno took a sizable pay cut reportedly to spare additional jobs…” What, exactly, does “reportedly” mean in this context? Did Leno do it, and did he do it to spare the jobs, or did he not? If he did, just say so. If someone else reported it, tell us who said so. If you cannot precisely say that he took a cut, or why he took a cut, don’t go all coy on us. The writer said that “producers were also reportedly given the option to take pay cuts…”  Were they? I don’t think you really, truly know. You say they “reportedly” were. What does that mean? Did you uncover the facts? State them then, and forget the hedging – you are national media. If you are merely guessing it’s all true, stay out of it. Or, at the very least, state who reported it, if you’ve done even that much research, and then you can leave the word “reportedly” out of it. That’s not taking things to the level of journalism, but it’s a step better than the “reportedly” ambiguities you’re floating.

This murkiness is a practice that finds a parallel in the idea of a reporter using the word “rumor” or “rumored.” Such tactics are ludicrous, if one really thinks about them. Unless the “reporter” can get the facts, he shouldn’t be reporting. It is his job to convey facts, not rumors. It is his job to unearth rumors and squelch them – not spread them. For a reporter to send a story to an editor with a word like “rumor” in it, well, that’s like broadcasting to one’s boss that one has declined to do one’s job. The job is to get someone to confirm or deny. The job is to communicate news, not hearsay.

The use of words like “reportedly” has another parallel in the use of passive voice. Most people have heard, at one time or another, that active voice is to be preferred over passive voice, if clear and responsible communications are desired. Passive voice is the voice of the obscurantist. We hear it in the politician who faces the congressional panel and says “Mistakes were made.” The passive construction “were made” conveniently relieves the speaker of having to put a subject, a doer of the action, into the sentence. Blame is skirted.

“Fox News: Fair and Balanced.” The first step toward “fair” is the step of attribution. That’s the basis of this journalism thing, and with so many tabloids masquerading as media, we really need Fox and any legitimate media to practice reportage, not its cheap imitation.

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