Never Write It If You Can Say It—and There Are Times You Shouldn’t Say It

By Jack Limpert

This morning’s conversation of the day among our neighborhood dog walkers was triggered by a Washington Post story about what two Virginia doctors said about a patient after he was sedated for a colonoscopy. The anesthesiologist, a woman, said of the patient, “I wanted to punch you in the face and man you up a little bit.”

Before the colonoscopy, the patient had put his smartphone on record, stuck it in his pants pocket, and his pants were placed under the examination table. When he later heard what the doctors had said about him, he sued and a jury awarded him $500,000.

One dog walker said he always wondered how doctors talked after he had been put to sleep for surgery or for an exam such as a colonoscopy. Another dog walker, a surgeon, said she always told her staff to assume that anything they said in the operating room was on a loudspeaker. She added that she’d had plenty of patients she wasn’t fond of but “It’s the doctor’s responsibility to suck it up and do your job.”

As a journalist, my reaction was that the irreverent, sometimes offensive conversation during the colonoscopy is not unknown in newsrooms. I’ve heard writers say some pretty irreverent, offensive things about people they covered, and editors have been known to take out their frustrations about writers in unprintable ways.

In my early days at the Washingtonian, I had a young editor who, after talking on the phone with a freelance writer, sometimes would slam the phone down and say, “Dumb beast.”

Some no-holds-barred newsroom conversation could be tolerated as blowing off steam but what always worried me was litigation. In the digital age, the editing conversation is mostly online, not person-to-person talk. Editors sometimes insert comments in stories, or exchange emails, that you’d never want a plaintiff’s lawyer to see.

The problem was we didn’t work on a story expecting to be sued. It happened rarely enough that it just wasn’t on our radar. But in 40 years as an editor, I had been sued enough that some comments and emails set off alarm bells.

In the pre-digital age—before the late 1980s—we threw out almost all galleys before publication so that no side comments (‘Better double-check this—this guy can be a pretty sloppy reporter”) on galleys would show up in a lawsuit.

The problem in the digital age is that almost everything put into a computer can be recovered and used against you. A litigator friend says one of the first things he demands from the defendant in a lawsuit is all emails: “It’s a lot of work to go through them but you’d be surprised at how often you find a smoking gun.”

I had been sued and deposed enough that I often walked down the hall to another editor to say, “Do not put something like that in an email. Come and tell me about it.”

Sometimes I repeated the old line once popular among Chicago politicians: “Never write it if you can say it, and never say it if you can just nod your head.” I didn’t mean the last part but for journalists there are times when it’s best to not say it—especially in an email.
Postscript: A writer emails to ask why comments would be inserted into a story if they were not to be published. Most Washingtonian stories were edited by three people: the story editor, the copy editor, and the editor. Any of us could insert queries or comments into the story in a way that allowed anyone in editorial to see them but they would not appear in published text.

A query might ask a question that one of the other editors could answer. A comment could suggest further checking or be a compliment: “Great quote.” It was simpler to insert the comment into the story where it was relevant than to write a separate email.

Sometimes I asked an editor not to put certain kinds of comments (“The writer obviously hates this poor guy”) into the system but instead to walk to my office and talk about it in person.  The editor sometimes would say, “Okay, no problem, I’ll delete it.”

You can hit the delete key but once the words are in the computer system the lawyer who files the $50 million lawsuit probably will find them.




  1. Tim Hays says

    (nods) Amen!

  2. When I met you, Jack–many decades ago–I was a lobbyist. We never put anything in writing–all in our heads. I learned fast. You won’t believe the things I would have on YOU in writing if I hadn’t–aw, kidding, kidding…but you get where I am going here.

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