When is a slaughterhouse not a slaughterhouse? An amusing ABC News internal email exchange obtained by Crikey reveals the debates over language use and the disquiet from rural reporters about how the inner-city “latte set” are covering the live cattle exports story.

The exchange also points to tensions between the news department and its rural division, which according to one staffer goes “soft” on some issues to protect its base.

The exchange began with a directive from news and current affairs boss Denise Eriksen banning the use of “slaughterhouse” and pointing out the difference between boy cattle and girl cattle…

From: Gordon Lavery
Sent: Thursday, 9 June 2011 4:40 PM
To: DG-News RCaff All
Subject: Cattle terms

Hello everybody

Your colleagues in Landline have made some valid points about our coverage of the live cattle export story. They include:

The farmers concerned are not ‘cattle farmers’ — the correct term is ‘beef producers’ — or even graziers.

They are not ‘cows’ — the cattle going to Indonesia are steers and heifers — ‘cows’ have not been sent north for some time.

And for the latte set — a steer is a male with its jatz (crackers) removed — that is castrated. A heifer is a female that is yet to have a calf.

They are not ‘slaughterhouses’. The correct term is abattoir or meatworks.

And, please, be aware that if you are in need of clarification on these issues — or further information, please do talk to EP Pete Lewis.  He is a mine of information on the rural sector and is happy to be your Wikipedia on these types of stories.

Cheers and thanks

Denise

ABC Radio PM presenter Mark Colvin mostly agreed — but insisted a slaughterhouse is a slaughterhouse…

On 09/06/2011, at 11:02 PM, “Mark Colvin” wrote:

Some valid points there as you say, but I see no reason not to call a slaughterhouse a slaughterhouse.

‘Abattoir’ and ‘meatworks’ are both convenient euphemisms, brought in because slaughterhouse sounded much too direct and descriptive.

Economics correspondent Stephen Long — or “Shlong” to one recipient — backed his colleague, and then issued a veiled swipe at the “industry capture” among rural reporters…

From: Stephen Long
Sent: Friday, 10 June 2011 9:02 AM
To: Mark Colvin
Cc: Gordon Lavery; DG-News RCaff All; Peter Lewis; Denise Eriksen; Donald Lange

Subject: Re: Cattle terms

I agree with Mark on “slaughterhouse” — it is an accurate description and I see no reason why we should avoid it.

More broadly, with respect, I wonder if there is an element of industry capture in the terms we ate being told to use on the advice of our rural reporting colleagues.

It seems to me that “beef producer” or “grazier” are also terms that distance the industry from the reality that it is in the business of raising cattle for slaughter, though I accept there may be reasons to distinguish dairy farms from “beef” farms, and I am happy to bow to greater wisdom if someone can give me good reasons for accepting the industry’s preferred nomenclature.

In all areas of journalism, though, I think we should be careful and skeptical about accepting and adopting industry terminology and jargon; it can at times be euphemistic or downright misleading.

Then things got a little nasty. Landline executive producer Peter Lewis slammed Long for his “patronising” tone…

From: Peter Lewis
Sent: Friday, 10 June 2011 1:49 PM
To: Stephen Long; Mark Colvin
Cc: Gordon Lavery; DG-News RCaff All; Denise Eriksen; Donald Lange
Subject: RE: Cattle terms

Stephen

Good for you.

I wish we were as disconnected from the daily lives of our viewers/readers/listeners to be able to make such patronising judgements about what’s good for them.

We tend to be informed by feedback rather than immune from it.

Regards

Pete Lewis

Long apologised. But he wasn’t backing down…

From: Stephen Long
Sent: Monday, 13 June 2011 4:04 PM
To: Peter Lewis
Cc: Gordon Lavery; DG-News RCaff All; Donald Lange
Subject: RE: Cattle terms

Peter,

I’m sorry you were offended. I didn’t intend my comments to be patronising and apologise if they came across that way. That said, I think these issues are important, and I stand by the thrust of what I said.

My point was a broad one. All kinds of industries, lobby groups, and vested interests adopt and promote terminology and jargon, often because it serves their interests or casts what they do in a good light. All journalists should beware of political, economic, industry or commercial jargon designed to conceal or confuse rather than to reveal. Among others, politicians, business people and lobbyists routinely use language that it is deliberately vague, imprecise or downright misleading. We should be looking to use words that are precise, accurate and expose meaning, not adopt or repeat obfuscating language.

Finance is full of it. For years, the industry has used the term “financial advisor” or “financial planner” or, even worse, “licensed financial planner” for people who were really salesman — pushing products for banks or other finance companies that paid them a commission. The chosen terms created a false impression that they were professionals delivering objective advice.

Those in the run-for-profit super sector and in the funds management business love to call themselves “the wealth industry” or “the wealth creation industry”. In fact they create less wealth for retirees on average — because of the high and multi-layered fees they charge — than the sector of the industry not run for profit. And when they make poor judgements, they can destroy rather than create wealth for the people whose compulsory super they are investing.

Executives at companies that use tax havens or transfer pricing to minimise the tax the companies pay like to speak of “tax effective measures” designed to increase shareholder value. Please don’t call it tax avoidance.

Management consultants prefer “downsizing” and “rightsizing” to sackings and retrenchments. The term “downsizing” is now widely used  but I would hate to see it become common usage in ABC reports.

The military in the United States uses the term “collateral damage” when it means the killing of innocent civilians. God forbid that we ever should.

Listen to the commentary from European politicians and bureaucrats on the sovereign debt crisis. Greece’s government isn’t defaulting on its debts — the debt is being “re-profiled”.

I said in my original email that I was “happy to bow to greater wisdom” if someone could give me good reasons for accepting the beef cattle industry’s preferred terms. I am still waiting.

Your points on using precise and accurate language about the cattle that was going to Indonesia (steers and heifers, not cows) was a good one, met with general agreement. I am less convinced by your insistence that no one use the term “slaughterhouse” and that we must refer to “beef producers” or even “graziers”.

If the reason you want us to shun the term slaughterhouse is that you don’t want to offend rural audiences and contacts, let’s be upfront about it. It may be that it’s appropriate for reporters dealing day-to-day with rural audiences and contacts in the meat and livestock industry to use the descriptions that they use and prefer, but I think we can have a legitimate debate about whether these terms must be universally adopted by all ABC journalists.

Right now, I’m with Colvin: I see no reason not to call a slaughterhouse a slaughterhouse. Abattoir, after all, is merely a term of French origin that means slaughterhouse — the dictionary definition of abattoir is “a slaughterhouse”. A cursory web search and white pages search shows that there are still “meatworks” in this country that choose of their own volition to use the “S” word.

I know the industry favours the term “beef producer” and it is not hard to imagine why. It puts the emphasis on the beef, the stuff most people like to eat, rather than on the animal which is being raised for slaughter so that beef can be “produced”.  Similarly, the term “grazier” conjures up bucolic images of animals grazing on pasture. I do not say this out of any hostility to the meat industry, but a sincere belief that journalists should question why phrases are adopted or promoted by lobbies or interest groups whoever they may be.

I read recently that the term “slaughterhouse” fell out of favour because it was more “graphic” than other terms used to describe where animals are killed for human consumption such as “abattoir” or “meatworks” (less graphic at least for English-language speakers).

The French pioneered the development of the large scale slaughterhouse or abattoir and this may be one reason why the French term came into use. I suspect, though, that an industry wishing to market its product preferred to adopt a euphemism or a foreign word to obfuscate what happened inside the “meatworks”, and so did a public which had little desire to reflect on the grizzly but necessary pre-requisite to enjoying their chosen cut of meat.

The fact that these euphemisms are in common use and favoured by the industry (and no doubt many rural viewers and listeners) raises important and difficult policy questions about ABC style.

In general, our style guides and SCOSE shun the use of euphemisms and jargon. Once a particular euphemism or jargon becomes widespread, though, there can be a tendency to say that ABC journalists should adopt it — to the exclusion of other terms or descriptions — because it is “common usage”.  I think we need to question that. ABC journalists shouldn’t be barred from using a different word that may be better and more precise simply because a euphemism has become “common usage”. If we do, we may be complicit in the debasement of language.

I reckon George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” is a useful reference on this point. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_and_the_English_Language. Orwell argued that because most political writing was designed to hide the truth rather than express it, the language used was necessarily vague. This, in my view, can also apply to the language of commerce and industry (and don’t ever think the language of industry and its lobbyists is not political). The remedies he proposed are the essence of good journalistic writing, including: never use a metaphor or simile you are used to seeing in print (avoid overused phrases); never use a long word when a short one will do; if it’s possible to cut a word out, cut it out; never use the passive where you can use the active; never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

I think the last point is relevant to this discussion.

Cheers,

Stephen

So an Orwellian end to the debate — we think. What will journalists say on the news tonight?

There’s background here, too: according to one ABC insider the ABC’s rural department has been perceived as “soft” compared to the rest of the news department when it comes to reporting.

“Rural is often viewed as doing PR for the rural sector,” the staffer said. “It’s very rare for the rural department to do any kind of hard hitting reporting on farmers. The rural department argues that they need to preserve their contacts and cannot burn them off. But there are times when the ABC’s coverage of rural issues slides into PR. This latest clash over the use of the phrase ‘slaughterhouse’ reflects the rural department’s determination to not upset their country listeners and viewers.

“There is also a funding aspect to this. A popular rural audience can also sandbag the ABC against funding cuts from conservative governments. Perhaps the point being lost here is that the rural sectors, farmers and people living in country towns are probably big enough to cop the occasional hard-hitting story.”