More Reporting and Less Punditry Would Strengthen The Vanguard

By Dan Carson

In recent days, it’s been interesting to view the comments that the Davis Vanguard solicited from its readers about what subject matter this community blog should cover and how the website itself could be improved. In that same spirit of self-examination at the beginning of a new year, let me offer an additional approach by which I think The Vanguard could improve its coverage of this community.

Put simply, I think The Vanguard should emphasize what it does best – reporting in-depth on news stories that on the natural stimulate important community conversations – and place less emphasis on commentaries that constitute pure punditry.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, here’s what I am NOT trying to do. I am NOT proposing to constrain in any way what subjects are deemed appropriate for discussion in this forum. I am NOT proposing to censor the opinions of the editor or commenters. My purpose is to strengthen and reinforce The Vanguard’s status as the journalism organization it aspires to be. I will lay out the specific practices I have in mind later in this piece.

According to its guiding principles that were released in May 2012, “The Vanguard is a community-based watchdog and news reporting organization that seeks to cover community debates and other events in a full and thorough manner.” In other words, it officially aims to be a journalism organization. Because none of the members of the Editorial Board or its editor have formal training in journalism, and because of my own experience in the field, I was encouraged by The Vanguard to provide it with advice regarding how this publication could adhere to sound journalism practices.

There is plenty going on here already that is praiseworthy, journalistically. For example, the Vanguard’s groundbreaking piece last year on the Police Department’s acquisition of the MRAP brought the citizens of Davis critical information about the activities of its city government. The information The Vanguard disclosed helped shape a local as well as a national debate about the militarization of local police agencies as well as the need to protect our first responders from the weapons of war that are popping up in the hands of criminals in every community.

But there is one area in which I think The Vanguard sometimes falls short journalistically. Some of the commentaries published here reflect one-sided and un-researched punditry rather than thoroughly investigated and well-verified opinion journalism. There are important distinctions between punditry and journalism, as I will explain.

In the recent kerfuffle over a Vanguard commentary, the editor asserted that he was under no obligation to seek out the views of a group he criticized in a commentary before its publication. “There is a fundamental difference in writing a new story, where we would absolutely want to talk to all parties, and writing a commentary,” The Vanguard’s editor stated.

That approach, however, is not consistent with widely accepted journalistic standards. Journalists attempt to verify the information upon which they intend to base their opinions before they publish. Journalists attempt to investigate all sides before reaching a conclusion. The same standards apply both to news reporting and opinion journalism, in the eyes of the Society of Professional Journalists and many others in the field.

Don’t take my word for it. I shared some recent Vanguard commentaries with Sigrid Bathen, a professional journalist with three decades of experience teaching journalism at community colleges and California State University, Sacramento (CSUS). She disagreed with a Vanguard editor’s suggestion that commentaries should get a free pass from the standard journalistic practice of verification of the information upon which their opinions are based.

“Thorough reporting and research are essential to ALL journalistic writing, including so-called ‘straight’ news reporting and commentary,” she told me in a recent email. “I’ve taught the upper-division opinion-writing class at CSUS for several semesters, and I always tell students at the outset that ‘Nobody cares about your opinion – you have to back it up with REPORTING and research.’

“Of course there is a difference between commentary and ‘straight’ news, but both should be based on thorough reporting. How much? How thorough? Sometimes that is driven by deadlines. But it’s certainly important to at least talk to the key individuals and-or groups involved in the story,” Bathen stated.

That view is echoed by Andrew Cline, an assistant professor of journalism at Missouri State University. He told readers of his blog that “opinion journalism matters” because it can “give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.” However, Cline also draws distinctions between opinion journalists and pundits.

“Opinion journalists should operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification,” stated Cline in one recent column. “Pundits need not report. They may certainly think. And they may even be well-informed. Their opinions may even be valuable. But without acts of reporting…that build a foundation of information and knowledge, punditry is 1. not journalism, and 2. of questionable utility in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism.”

Stephen Ward, founder of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, called for “deliberative opinion journalism” that, by his definition, includes “commitment to evidence-based inquiry.”  Ward stated in a 2011 commentary, “Opinion should be rigorously based on a wide range of evidence, solid studies, and perspective on the data. I am ready to follow the facts where they lead.”

Renowned journalist David Halberstam is concerned about what he calls “the rise of a culture of allegation and assertion at the expense of an older culture of verification.”

Bill Kovach, former curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, and Tom Rosenstiel, then-director of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, voiced the same concerns in their 1999 book, Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media. In a chapter titled “The Journalism of Assertion,” the authors warned that “argument is overwhelming reporting…Many of the new media outlets are engaged in commenting on information rather than gathering it.”

Technological innovation in the news industry is seen as driving the shift. “The rise of 24-hour news stations and Internet news and information sites has placed demands on the press to ‘have something’ to fill the time,” said Kovach and Rosenstiel. “The economics of these new media, indeed, demand that this product be produced as cheaply as possible. Commentary, chat, speculation, opinion, argument, controversy and punditry cost far less than assembling a team of reporters, producers, fact checkers, and editors to cover the far-flung corners of the world.”

These same tendencies are apparent in some commentaries published in The Vanguard where the editor has opined with obviously insufficient reporting in advance on what he is writing about.

In one rush to judgment, the Vanguard suggested last year that the city needed a parcel tax hike because a city pool was leaking and needed repairs. The Vanguard further claimed a parcel tax hike was necessary because the money currently devoted to street and bike path repair was primarily a one-time commitment. The Vanguard had to backtrack from both inaccurate claims, undermining the credibility of its case. (For the record, there are other legitimate grounds for considering a parcel tax hike.)

The point is that both missteps could have been avoided if the writer had checked his claims with anyone at City Hall in the know about these matters. For example, he might have learned that the city had a sizable fund already set aside for pool repairs, and that the city had $3.9 million in ongoing funding committed to road and bike path repair projects.

It is also possible that more in-depth reporting by The Vanguard for opinion pieces would provide more evidence to buttress the editor’s own opinions, and help bulletproof his arguments against others’ potential objections. That outcome would be good for journalism and The Vanguard, too.

Here is how I recommend The Vanguard cover the events of 2015:

  • Focus more on telling your highly educated and intelligent readers the facts they need to make up their own minds about the matter at hand, and worry less about telling them what to think about the information that you present.
  • Try running a straight-up news story the first day regarding any important civic development. Wait until the second day or so before leaping in with the Vanguard’s own analysis or commentary.
  • Perhaps, more often, the Vanguard could analyze the pros and cons of a pending governmental policy decision and invite its readers to weigh in with their thoughts without tipping its hand so quickly as to its own opinion. This more open-minded approach might encourage more engagement by commenters.
  • Make sure you call all of the major involved parties for that first day’s news story and pose to them all the hard questions and issues that concern you. Quote responsible and knowledgeable sources of information – on the record, whenever possible, with appropriate attribution — to tell the fullest possible version of what is going on. If some parties don’t call you back, let your readers know you reached out to them and tried to be fair.
  • Don’t rely so heavily on others’ news reports as the basis of formulating your own opinions. Do your own reporting and go back to original sources. This will give you a stronger basis for opining knowledgeably and credibly on the issues of the day.
  • Before you venture out to tell others what to think, be more innately curious about what others may be thinking, and why and how they may be thinking differently than you do.

I thought the Vanguard’s 2014 election coverage was pretty good, for the most part, mainly because it went out of its way to give every candidate their say without filtering and because its coverage often focused on the questions that were on the minds of the electorate rather than trumpeting its own agenda. For the most part, The Vanguard reported the news first, and worried about telling readers its own views about the candidates later.

The Vanguard should continue to take the same approach now that the elections are over. Every Vanguard opinion piece should be thoroughly vetted and researched before it is posted, no matter how much time and work that takes. Your readers, donors, and subscribers deserve the journalism you have promised them, not punditry.

Dan Carson was graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for the San Diego Union for 15 years, including a decade as the paper’s Capitol bureau chief. He also contributed to California’s now-defunct journalism review magazine, called “feed/back,” for many years.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. SODA

    I like the idea of reporting on an issue the first day and commentary the second, but I would not want the DV to stop the commentary. That is one if not the most valuable parts for me. And less rehashing of the same content: today might be a good example.  Two days of similar content on the Mayor’s state of the city speech, with minimal commentary. David mentions “absolutely” he could differ with the tone of the optimism, but then doesn’t….So we got two days of mainly content, with much duplication and little commentary.  I suppose there may be episodic DV readers (as opposed to regular) and the duplication is intended for them, but I tend to skim over repetition, probably to my detriment.  Thanks for the article and ideas!

    1. Davis Progressive

      i read the commentary, there was a lot of subtle points that david made, including a whole section where he explained briefly his disagreements on the issues.  whereas the article on wednesday was strictly reporting on what dan wolk said.  seems that david did exactly as dan carson suggested here.

  2. Tia Will

    My thanks to Dan for the article with useful suggestions . Its hard to switch from ob/gyn to blog contributor with no training, no preparation, and very little time, so all suggestions are appreciated.

    I also want to thank SODA for your input. I understand that for many, the repetition is not of value. I find that on most articles, there is that little twist, or change in perspective that makes reading worthwhile. I would like to just toss out an idea to see what people think. What about the thought of a “Brief Updates” section which would include topics that have already been covered very recently but for which there is not enough new information for a separate article, and yet the author of the piece feels there is more information that might be of value to those interested.

    One example to show you the kind of thing I am suggesting. I had written a recent piece on the prevention of accidental gun injuries based on a incident in Idaho. My article would have been much stronger if I had initially included the current recommendations by from the American Academy of Pediatricians and tied that into our local scene by posting what our local pediatricians are actually doing. That didn’t occur to me at the time of writing, but did occur to me in view of some of the comments about what is and what is not within the appropriate role of a primary care provider.

    What I am wondering is would there be any interest in these kinds of very brief additions to previous articles with links to those articles for those who may not have seen the original ? Your thoughts Vanguardians ?

    1. wdf1

      T. Will:  What I am wondering is would there be any interest in these kinds of very brief additions to previous articles with links to those articles for those who may not have seen the original ? Your thoughts Vanguardians ?

      One of the advantages of internet journalism (and punditry) is the ability to (hyper) link to offsite sources.  I think that’s something that could be done more frequently on the Vanguard.  Those links could be sources for information in the article, or interesting articles for further reading.

  3. LadyNewkBahm

    Its nice to see a piece like this. I think the headline is accurate. The more facts you have to buttress your opinion, the more credibility an opinion has for anyone.

    I would also add to be careful about information that comes from questionable sources. the ACLU is used as a source but is that really any less of an special interest group than the NRA?

    I’ve also noticed that many stories are very similar to others. It can be difficult to come up with fresh new ideas, it may mean there needs to be fewer stories.

    1. Barack Palin

      I’ve also noticed that many stories are very similar to others. It can be difficult to come up with fresh new ideas, it may mean there needs to be fewer stories.

      Agree, for instance all the articles regarding race are starting to get boring.

      1. Davis Progressive

        it seems like it’s still generating more interest than the local stuff, especially when there wasn’t anything happening locally.  i assume with the council meeting on tuesday, we will see less race and police and more local politics.

  4. Anon

    This is my personal view:

    This blog has done some good investigative journalism in the past, but for some reason tracked away from that concept into almost pure op-ed with little basis in fact, while still claiming to be doing investigative journalism.  Secondly, the Vanguard has a habit of listening to certain select citizens who happen to have the Vanguard’s ear, while not bothering to research/interview other opposing viewpoints, then pushes the agenda of those who have the Vanguard’s ear to gain political change based on that very narrow often ill-informed view.  Thirdly, the Vanguard uses its own editorial board to buttress the viewpoint of David Greenwald, often forcefully attacking any opposing points of view.

    The Vanguard definitely serves a useful purpose, in that it will report on controversial issues without hesitation.  It also allows differing viewpoints to post commentary.  But I always know that 1) I am getting a very biased progressive/liberal viewpoint in the Vanguard; 2) facts need to be verified by myself because I cannot depend on the veracity of whatever is reported in the Vanguard with any degree of accuracy; 3) the Vanguard will resort to using the editorial board to bolster its positions; 4) the Vanguard cannot stand DA Jeff Reisig and firmly believes the justice system is racially biased.

    I also know in talking with various members of the community that they have ceased reading the Vanguard because of the points I have made.  I myself went away from the Vanguard for a good while, and am still not certain I will continue to comment.  I’m hanging in there for the moment, but the jury is still out as to whether I will remain.  Just a personal choice.  David Greenwald has the right to run his blog any way he sees fit, and I have the right to make the choice as to whether I want to continue to join the conversation or not.

    1. Davis Progressive

      i know it’s your personal opinion, but i really don’t see it the same way.

      first, investigative stuff might be nice, but david has had to shift a lot of his work to raising money to pay for the expenses of running this site.  he’s also posted on facebook that he has some health issues.  investigative stuff is time consuming and he has no real staff.

      second, he uses his editorial board to buttress the viewpoint of himself?  in what way?  of the known editorial board members, tia posts a lot – she often disagrees with david on land use stuff.  matt williams posts some, he is all over the map.  michelle posts occasionally now, used to post a lot more.  no one else on the board even posts.  so i fail to see that point substantiated at all?


      1. Barack Palin

          no one else on the board even posts.  so i fail to see that point substantiated at all?

        How do you know?  With anonymous posts and the Vanguard allowing people to have multiple aliases how can you say that no other members of the board even posts?

  5. TrueBlueDevil

    I think the Vanguard probably has more impact when it covers local issues, and that would include the largely uncovered campus issues. The Enterprise tends to run fluff pieces, The Aggie is on life support, and the Bee only pops in when there is major drive by story.

    Riding social issues and the current liberal thinking of the moment gets old. Isn’t that what the Huffington Post does, and if David wants to go that route, OK.

    In the hubub of life, it would be nice to also have follow up on previous stories of interest. Here are a few examples.

    The public pools are reportedly leaking massive amounts of water, but there were some simple fixes that would solve some of the problem. Have the fixes been implemented, and did they work?

    The volleyball coach / Nancy Peterson “investigation” cost DJUSD $22,000, but there have been several assertions from insiders that the investigator didn’t interview even one of the coaches witnesses. If this is true, have our city legal representatives and managers failed horribly at oversight? Or was the volleyball coach jobbed? Did attorney Alexander M. Sperry of Van Dermyden Maddux Law Corporation (Sacramento) do a competent and thorough investigation? If not, are they ethical and worthy of any work ever again? The prior coach had similar complaints, were her witnesses interviewed? (I would hope the focus would be on the investigation, not on the coaches, who have gone through enough.)

    What other major public works projects are coming down the pike?

  6. Frankly

    I want to thank Dan Carson for this very thoughtful article.  I agree with much, if not most of what he is writing here.

    I think the Vanguard has grown in journalistic sophistication over its time.  Like all enterprises that grow there are going to be crucibles and inflection points for taking it to the next level.  So articles like Dan’s are important because it provides the seeds of contemplation that leads to answers to the periodic and ongoing question: “what do I want to be when I grow up?”

    However, there is a bigger debate about journalistic process and integrity… both of which are entirely broken, IMO.

    I absolutely agree with Jonathan Haidt that we humans don’t really have an open mind, but a righteous mind, on most of the critical topics of life… we simply argue to win.  If we do learn something in the debate, most of us will just use it to redevelop our own arguments so that we can continue to feel confident in winning.  And if we get to a point where our confidence of winning is depleted, we simply stop talking or deflect or delay… waiting until the next opportunity.  We are hopelessly biased primarily because of our moral psychology.

    Journalists are no different except that they have become quite skilled at masking their bias in journalistic technique.  I call it the “butt” technique as in: “she said this, and he said this… BUT, here is some information to help discredit what he said.”  It gives the impression that there there is balance, but the piece is biased and tilted to fit the moral views of the writer.

    And then there is the choice for what to write about.  For example, the Vanguard writes a lot of content related to the topic of racism and the plight of blacks.  I know that the VG owner is the proud parent of two adopted mixed-race children and there is no doubt that this is a topic he personally cares about.  However, blacks as a group are victims of a tragedy in education quality.   Yet articles on this topic, even though Davis is an education town, are few and far between compared to the more general racism and crime articles.  Again, we can just look at the moral psychology of the journalist and note the human bias at play.

    I personally appreciate the more direct, and arguably less sophisticated non-masked, style.

    The topic of moral psychology is fascinating to me.  If I were younger with more time, I would probably go back to college to study the topic… because I think it answers many of the questions for what prevents us from working together and making progress on solving or most critical social and economic problems.   I also think it is the next step in awareness that journalist should develop if they really want to be seen as unbiased and fair.

    Haidt reasoned that our moral psychology drives our opinions about the world around us.  Our moral psychology cements our biases.  And it is only our self awareness of our moral psychology that allows us to step outside our comfort level and explore different perspectives.

    I believe that journalists, to be effective and good, have an absolute need to develop top-level awareness of their own moral psychology and to adjust for it in their reporting.

    But lacking that ability I would prefer that they just say what the mean and mean what they say.

    1. Miwok

      Frankly, I enjoy your comments, and everyone today is not over-thinking things because Mr Carson has created no controversy with his article.

      Davis is a City of thinkers, so I expect them to have opinions, and like other readers, I decline to even read about some articles, now that I have been on a while. It may take me a couple days to see my thoughts expressed from another poster, but I reread to see. I rarely see people arguing making the other person change their political party. Let’s give that up.

      I have posted sometimes without linking to things because a great many posts are digressing from the topic in the article anyway. Mr Greenwald may have his columnists from those topics, when the comments “go there”. But what people link to is not to be trusted, and I agree with  Mr Carson on that.

      There is not much out there that is not corporately driven or politically motivated.

      I personally appreciate the more direct, and arguably less sophisticated non-masked, style.

      Don’t like passive-aggressive journalism, Frankly? Neither do I.

      1. Tia Will


        I rarely see people arguing making the other person change their political party. Let’s give that up.”

        I don’t believe that this is a goal of anyone posting here. I think this has been given up long ago if the goal ever existed. When I am posting I generally have three goals :

        1. Gain more information from someone whom I think will have more knowledge than I do on a local or legal topic.

        2. Express a point of view that will not otherwise be heard. This is not difficult since I come from a point of view that is not represented on either end of our current political spectrum.

        3. Present an example or concept from the medical field  or my personal experience that is pertinent to the conversation.

        My goal is not to change minds but rather to present a different perspective. As Frankly has observed the majority will just weave what is said into their own set of firmly established beliefs anyway and will bow out of the conversation when the “win” has become uncertain. Follow the sound of Frankly’s “crickets” when a point is made that no one wants to address and the truth of this will become clear.

  7. Robin W.

    I agree with Dan’s points. I read The Vanguard less these days than I used to because there is less fact-based journalism here. I  have also been somewhat dismayed at the one-sided skew and biased reporting in some of the judicial pieces written by interns which are supposed to be fact-based reporting. Interns needs to be edited, guided and instructed to learn to be objective fact-based journalists. It does not look like that is happening.

    1. SODA

      I agree Robin!

      I appreciate the interns’ work and enthusiasm but have several times questioned the selection of article title, trying to determine from the article why it was chosen and the clarity of some articles. I have suggested editing would be a gift to the interns and to us readers and further suggested a UCD connection for the editing. May be a win win.

      The court articles may well benefit from Dan’s suggestion of facts one day separate from commentary.

  8. DavisBurns

    Thank you, Mr. Carson! For me, there is too much commentary about the same topics and much the same arguments pro and con from the same posters.

    I’d like to read articles on the long term cost of developmemt to our community, innovation park successes and failures in other communities, a look at the impact of the Cannery on local schools, city services and traffic, an investigative look at public-private partnerships in Davis and the long term relationship, a look at the privatization of water on the west coast and the city’s utility bill and details of our plans to reduce energy consumption.

  9. Dave Hart

    A widely read DV is in everybody’s interest, even those who don’t know it exists.  It will continue to grow and be widely read if it has the reputation for high journalistic standards.  I support all of what Dan Carson wrote.  I also like the fact that David brings a strong voice to his opinion pieces and I see nothing wrong with both sides of the DV as long as they are well supported.  The journalism part is just a hell of a lot more work than the opinion side and I assume that is where financial resources are most required or potentially lacking.

    In my mind, the DV’s primary value and guiding principle should be to provide readers with factually bullet-proof coverage on local issues with the emphasis on quality (thoroughness, multiple viewpoints, depth, etc.) at the expense of quantity if need be.  The thing that originally attracted me to the DV was the in-depth reporting of primarily local issues that were covered not at all or superficially by the Davis Enterprise.  The DV was the place to go to find out what was REALLY happening on an issue because it dug deeper and wider.  I don’t see it as being in competition with the Enterprise, rather as a complementary place to go on issues where and when you want more facts, the story behind the story, stuff that the Enterprise can’t report or is afraid to report because of their advertising-based business model.  Attempting to cover too many issues or stories must dilute the quality of the investigation and reporting…there are still only 24 hours in a day and the budget for paying a professional wage for reporters puts a huge strain on a locally based 501(c)(3).

    The DV doesn’t have to publish a new article every day to have a major positive impact on our community or to be worthy of our individual financial support.

    All that said, I believe the commenting policy is a primary element negatively affecting the direction and quality of the DV.  I get the feeling, whether or not it is based in fact, that in the last few years some articles have been hurriedly dashed off and published as a way to generate readership or provoke predictably inflammatory comments by readers.  Fireworks as a way to attract readers.  In the end, this is what is becoming tiresome:  The same small group of commenters reduces the opportunity for a diverse and open-eared “discussion” in favor of polemics and ideological trench warfare.  The comments section has grown to compete with the articles for attention not so much on the actual issues or ideas as in bombastic emotional outrage without any responsibility for authorship.  Where articles and opinions could or should lead to transformational discussion and growth, they too often result in off-topic, defensive polemical rants by the anonymous who seem to want their own blog, but don’t want to be responsible for putting their name on it or doing the hard daily work it would require.

    I’m grateful to the few who post under their own names and I give more weight to their opinions even where I disagree with them as I would in any face-to-face exchange where mutual respect is established or at least assumed.  Mutual respect and respect for others’ opinions is eroded when some are allowed to hide their identity without a clear and specific reason for each topic under discussion.  After all, the flip side of anonymity can be irresponsibility since there is no way to hold the source responsible for what is said.

    Blanket anonymity that has no specifically articulated reason ultimately suppresses readership.  It becomes a chore to wade through the anonymous shrapnel and boring to read creditable responses to what may be irresponsible comments.  It feels like a waste of time.

    The most illuminating commentary on the DV is invariably posted under actual names regardless of the topic.  Anonymous commenters, usually negative to the Fifth Street road diet, were universally wrong in contrast to those who posted under their actual names regarding how it would be a net benefit.  There was one anonymous commenter in the Volleyball Gate series who clearly stated why they needed to be anonymous and that person’s posts, while unverifiable in the moment, seemed to contribute to the coverage and ultimate resolution of the issue.  Most often, however, it seems the anonymous comments are just so much static and flies buzzing about and degrade the potential for transformative discussion.  Anonymity should be handed out sparingly in the interests of not just the VG readers, but in the interest of widening the positive impact that the DV can have on the functioning of our local institutions.

  10. Tia Will


    Thirdly, the Vanguard uses its own editorial board to buttress the viewpoint of David Greenwald, often forcefully attacking any opposing points of view.”

    I really wish you would provide some examples of what you are referring to with this comment. As the current member of the Vanguard furthest to the political left by a long shot, I do not feel that editorial board members are used to buttress the views of David. To provide support for my assertion I will provide a couple of examples.

    1. David opposed fluoridation. I supported it.

    2. David has come out in favor of the “innovation parks”. While I am not in outright opposition, I am much, much more cautions than he is and think that his optimism may well be misplaced.

    3. David did not share my strong opposition to the Cannery.

    Now, for your examples ?

    1. South of Davis

      Tia wrote:

      > Now, for your examples ?

      Since you only came up with a single (after David’s correction) thing that you and David “disagree”on (and one where you are “more cautious”) it might be easier if you just click though the Vanguard archives to find the hundreds of times you “buttress the viewpoint of David Greenwald”…

  11. Rich RifkinWDE 73

    Dan Carson was graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in journalism …

    The Vanguard would be better if its contributors could write proper English.

  12. Dan Carson

    Rich, my understanding is that both uses are correct.   Here is how the American Heritage dictionary describes this grammatical issue:

    The verb graduate has denoted the action of conferring an academic degree or diploma since at least 1421. Accordingly, the action of receiving a degree should be expressed in the passive, as in She was graduated from Yale in 1998. This use is still current, if old-fashioned, and is acceptable to 78 percent of the Usage Panel. In general usage, however, it has largely yielded to the much more recent active pattern (first attested in 1807): She graduated from Yale in 1998. Eighty-nine percent of the Panel accepts this use. It has the advantage of ascribing the accomplishment to the student, rather than to the institution, which is usually appropriate in discussions of individual students. When the institution’s responsibility is emphasized, however, the older pattern may still be recommended. A sentence such as The university graduated more computer science majors in 1997 than in the entire previous decade stresses the university’s accomplishment, say, of its computer science program. On the other hand, the sentence More computer science majors graduated in 1997 than in the entire previous decade implies that the class of 1997 was in some way a remarkable group. •The Usage Panel feels quite differently about the use of graduate to mean “to receive a degree from,” as in She graduated Yale in 1998. Seventy-seven percent object to this usage.

    Can you cite any grammatical authority that says my usage is incorrect?

    1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      I am my own grammatical authority, Dan. Since you did the work to graduate, it’s wrong to use the passive voice. It’s not just archaic. It is wrong.

      Turning to dictionaries for usage will get you nowhere. They almost always say “both uses are correct.” But, they are not. The passive voice clearly implies in English that the action was the responsibility of someone else.

      In English we mean two very different things when we say, for example, “I lost my coat” and “My coat was lost.” In the former, the implication is I am responsible, I made the mistake. The latter removes the responsibility. I stress this is an English rule, because in Spanish (and other Romance languages) the passive voice is the norm. You would normally not say, “I broke your pen” in Spanish. (Rompí su pluma.) More likely you would say, “Your pen was broken.” (Su pluma se rompió.)

      The passive usage for graduation from a university probably derives from the fact that long ago most American and British universities emphasized Latin*, and as a result they likely translated the Latin construction into English in this case. However, “was graduated” is clearly wrong in English; and it is no longer true that every liberal arts student must master Latin.

      * The word campus, which is Latin for field, was first used at Princeton University and over time acquired the meaning it has today. Originally, Princeton was called the College of New Jersey, and it was located in the town of Elizabeth. But then the Presbyterians who ran it acquired a large farm near the village of Princeton and decided to move the college there. Allegedly, every word on the architectural blue prints of the new place was in Latin. That makes sense since most courses were taught in Latin, then. Where the architect identified a field, he wrote “campus” on his map. And that is why, a friend of mine who graduated from Princeton told me, most American colleges today are located on college campuses, even if they were not constructed on a field.

      1. Tia Will

        A scenario for both Dan and Rich.

        I run a clinic specialized for the diagnosis of breast cancer and treatment of non cancerous conditions of the breast. A visit to this clinic generates a lot of anxiety for my patients, and for those whose treatment of a benign condition is completed and for those who have no suspicious findings, I frequently use language to lower their anxiety level as well as to convey they benign nature of their situation. I unintentionally made the following statement to a patient a number of years ago:

        “You are fine. I am graduating you from this clinic”.

        She started laughing and I just stood by and watched her anxiety melt away. I have commonly used the expression since with the same result.

        So my question is, how would you each interpret that statement given that one could view “graduation” from both the active and passive voice depending on your point of view. I was an active participant in both the suggestions leading to her full recovery. I am the active participant in determining that she no longer needs my services. However, she was the active participant in performing whatever acts led to her improvement thus enabling her “graduation “.

        Your thoughts ?

        1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

          “You are fine. I am graduating you from this clinic”.

          A couple of thoughts: First, you have a punctuation error. The period after clinic belongs inside the end-quotation mark; and second, your active use of graduating in this instance is fine.

          Were I your editor, however, I would prefer a change in prepositions. I think your statement would be improved to say, “I am graduating you out of this clinic.” Using from is not wrong; and certainly in spoken English the standard is far more relaxed. I think, though, out of is clearer to my trained ear. If the patient were the one given the active role, I would stick with from.

          I also think that you would likely ease the anxiety of your patients as much or more by giving them the credit, saying, “Congratulations, you’ve passed your exams. Your tissues all look perfectly healthy. You have now graduated from this clinic.” However, if you have found that making yourself the subject and your patient the object does a superior job of relieving worry, then of course you should stick with that.

    2. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      If my answer does not satisfy your thirst for an authority, try Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.”

      I will copy what they say about the active voice:

      11. Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:

      I shall always remember my first visit to Boston. This is much better than

      My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

      The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise. If the writer tries to make it more concise by omitting “by me,”

      My first visit to Boston will always be remembered,

      it becomes indefinite: is it the writer, or some person undisclosed, or the world at large, that will always remember this visit?

      This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

      The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed to- day.
      Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

      The first would be the right form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration; the second, in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.

      The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

      There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
      Dead leaves covered the ground.

      The sound of the falls could still be heard. The sound of the falls still reached our ears.

      The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.
      Failing health compelled him to leave college.

      It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.
      He soon repented his words.

      As a rule, avoid making one passive depend directly upon another.

      Gold was not allowed to be exported.
      It was forbidden to export gold (The export of gold was prohibited).

      He has been proved to have been seen entering the building.
      It has been proved that he was seen to enter the building.

      In both the examples above, before correction, the word properly related to the second passive is made the subject of the first.


      A common fault is to use as the subject of a passive construction a noun which expresses the entire action, leaving to the verb no function beyond that of completing the sentence.

      A survey of this region was made in 1900. This region was surveyed in 1900.

      Mobilization of the army was rapidly carried out. The army was rapidly mobilized.

      Confirmation of these reports cannot be obtained. These reports cannot be confirmed.

      Compare the sentence, “The export of gold was prohibited,” in which the predicate “was prohibited” expresses something not implied in “export.” 

      1. Dan Carson

        I like using the American Heritage dictionary as an authority because they take seriously the idea that usage of the English language changes over time.  They, on a regular basis, debate and vote on what usages of words they deem appropriate.  In this case, they explicitly say my usage of this specific phrase is grammatical.  You can have a different opinion, you can put out your own dictionary if you want, but you don’t have the authority to overrule them.  I was taught to use the phrasing I did in journalism school. My professor offered the common sense argument that it was the university that conferred a degree on me, after judging whether the quality and quantity of my work met their academic standards.  The “actor” was the university, not me. I think that is a reasonable and defensible approach.

        So, we can agree to disagree here on the fine points of grammatical usage until the Vanguard readers cry for mercy.  I appreciate hearing your further explanation and your responsiveness to my question. I certainly am not immune from making grammatical mistakes. But I object to the insulting tone of your original comment.  That has no place here, and it’s one of the things that commenters do on a regular basis that drives people away from the Vanguard.

  13. Tia Will


    Thank you so much for taking the time for a serious and thoughtful reply. I appreciate your thoughts on my punctuation, word usage, and emphasis.I love your focus on the patient in your alternative “graduation phrase”. I am definitely going to try that out as I feel it does put the emphasis on the patient where it belongs.
    Please feel free to continue to comment on my articles and posts. As someone not trained in writing skills other than clear communication in charts and orders, I appreciate any help in advancing my skills in this new endeavor.


  14. Tia Will

    I also think that you would likely ease the anxiety of your patients as much or more by giving them the credit, saying, “Congratulations, you’ve passed your exams. Your tissues all look perfectly healthy. You have now graduated from this clinic.” However, if you have found that making yourself the subject and your patient the object does a superior job of relieving worry, then of course you should stick with that.”

    I would like to use this response from Rich to me as an example of another aspect of the Vanguard that I think is undervalued. A number of times in response to a post in which I float an idea or suggestion, there have been comments to the effect of ” how would you like it if someone else told you how to do your job as a doctor ? ”

    My response has been consistent. If the person giving the recommendation has a good suggestion or better way of doing something, I should listen regardless of what they do for their day job.  Rich’s sincere response to my question is a perfect example. I have been practicing medicine for over thirty years, and have been operating the Breast Screening Center for 17 years, and yet he provided a better phrase than I have ever come up with to convey the same idea in a patient centered manner. I liked his approach so much that I have cut and pasted it for use in this clinic when conveying information to the patient.

    One advantage of the Vanguard is that it allows for the near real time exchange of ideas that may pertain to areas outside our own area of expertise that may enrich our jobs or our lives if we will only stop to consider their value.

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