Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

Two Minute Tips

Understand the jargon, don’t just repeat it

January 24, 2020

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Freelance writers don’t get paid time off or parental leave, but taking time away from work is important. Writing photo by Hannah Olinger via Unsplash.

Covering any beat in journalism means dealing with jargon, which is more than a collection of buzzwords. I remember a professor of biochemistry decades ago saying in class that buzzwords were language that kept insiders in and outsiders out. And that is a point.

But every field or activity—government, wastewater management, medicine, economics, music, or any other—develops an argot. The new language, which may use common words in a different and specific way, becomes a set of shortcuts for more accurate communication. Two electrical engineers might discuss waveguides, which is more compact than “a rectangular metal conduit that conducts electromagnetic waves from one point to another.” Two fine artists could say “mark making” in a discussion of visual vocabulary and recognize what each meant.

As is true with other fields, business and an entire language. There are those buzzwords—trendy terms that come into fashion and pass out again and eventually are like wearing pleated trousers. They looked good at one point but are now dated. When was the last time you heard anyone talk about total quality management? In the early 1990s, that was all the rage. And just as that passed, so shall terms like digital transformation.

However, there is also a more foundational set of words for business. Such things as ROI, operational profit, days sales outstanding, audit, IPO, 10-Q, campaign, and logistics are part of the workaday vocabulary of people in the corporate sphere. If you’re going to report on business, you need to be able to use such terms.

That assumes you take the time to understand them. I remember a discussion sometime back with a young journalist, covering business, who was unsure what a recession meant beyond two quarters of negative growth in GDP. All respect to the person, who made the effort to get a grounding and some grasp of the concept. But I’ve seen too many times when reporters try to fake things to look as though they know what they’re doing.

Every term in business has context and meaning beyond a definition. If you refer to EBITDA, for example, you could recite “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization,” but that’s not enough. A business journalist needs to understand that it’s a way of measuring a company’s operational performance up to a certain point in the income statement (one of the three major types of financial statements, with the cash flow statement and balance sheet, that help explain a company’s current financial position) before additional adjustments that will affect the company’s earnings (profits, typically called net income, that are attributed to shares of stock through the concept of earnings per share, or EPS).

Notice how many other terms you also need to know. It can feel like going in circles, but don’t feel bad because we all go through this. Even people in business do. No one is born knowing any of this. Take your time, refer back and forth, digging down where you need to get more grounding, and soon you’ll use the terms and be able to translate them where necessary for an audience that is unfamiliar with them.

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