On Sept. 9, I received an email news release from what appeared to be the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The subject line read, “Nevada Child Drownings Highest in U.S. Per Capita for August.”
As I read closer, I realized the release was not from the Commission, but from Finn Partners, a D.C. public relations firm that apparently handles the Commission’s publicity.
That, of course, made me more cautious. The release read in part, “CPSC compared total media-reported pool and spa drownings for August for children less than 15 with the most recent and most comparable census data by state, for children less than 18. They found that Nevada child drowning numbers spiked in August with 4.52 drownings per million children…”
Immediately, given the fact that they were reporting only a single month’s figures, I wanted more information. If they were sending these releases out each month, they might easily be unrepresentative simply because the time sample was so small. Plus, I didn’t know what to make of the 4.52 figure in a state with 2.8 million people. Why not just supply the actual figure? So I wrote back to Drew Lovejoy, who signed the message accompanying the Commission’s release: “I assume there were not 4.52 actual drownings. Can you tell me the number there were…?”
A few minutes later I received this message in reply: “Three drownings took place this past August – one fatal and two nonfatal. … The two nonfatal drownings took place on August 5 and 13.”
Now I REALLY didn’t know what to make of this. I had never heard of a nonfatal drowning. I was reminded of Byron’s “melancholy merriment” or Donne’s “beggarly riches.”
So I did a little research and then wrote back to the commission again: “I just checked the definition of drown in seven dictionaries, including the OED, and also checked to see how it is defined in Nevada Revised Statutes. They all define a drowning as a death by submersion. That would make a nonfatal drowning a contradiction in terms. What is a nonfatal drowning?”
Mr. Lovejoy replied, “CPSC uses the World Health Organization definition of drowning, which is: Drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid; outcomes are classified as ‘death,’ ‘morbidity’ and ‘no
morbidity.’ We use the terms ‘fatal’ and ‘nonfatal’ rather than death, morbidity and no morbidity.”
Later I received a call from a more senior Finn executive, Jim Luetkeneyer, who said the “nonfatal drowning” term was used for very severe injuries, but that it is difficult to communicate that to the public. There is no handy term like “drowning” to express it, so they use “nonfatal drowning.” (I was not surprised later to find that Luetkeneyer had written of himself, “As long as it can help clients highlight their message, a unique tactic can really help a campaign stand apart from the competition, especially in risk averse Washington.”)
This was a novel concept, even for public relations. Bureaucrats for the World Health Organization are not generally known as etymologists, even if Finn Partners was characterizing WHO’s policies accurately. Moreover, no one – in or out of P.R. – should be shopping around for meanings of words that suit their clients’ needs from people who are NOT linguistic experts.
When the U.S. government in Vietnam used “terminated with extreme prejudice” as a euphemism for its assassinations or in Afghanistan used “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a substitute for torture, how is that different from inflating statistics with “nonfatal drownings”? Is it different because it is done with good intentions? This is a slippery slope. After all, “enhanced interrogations” was used by the Gestapo as a term for torture, which is uncomfortably close to our government’s term for the same practice.
When manipulation of language becomes acceptable behavior for government – or spokespeople for government – it has set a powerful example for other with less noble motives. And as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.”
As Brandeis also said, we should be most on guard against government abuses “when the government’s purposes are beneficent.”
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.