Word watch: reform

Reform has been in the news, both foreign and domestic. In reports about the Iranian election and its violent aftermath, writers have referred to the leading opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi as a reluctant champion of reform. In the debate over health care here at home, advocates and reporters have called the plans for change reform.

Over the years, copy editors at The News & Observer have been encouraged to stamp out reform — that is, our editors wanted us to be cautious about using the word in the pages of the newspaper. They were focused on the definition of the noun reform:

"the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory" (Random House Webster’s College Dictionary)


"amendment of what is defective, vicious, corrupt or depraved." (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary)

Calling a change reform puts a certain value on what has been changed. What politicians refer to as reform might instead merely be a change from one defective practice to another. As "The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage" puts it: reform "suggests not just change but improvement." "The Associated Press Guide to News Writing" points out: "But one group’s reform can be another group’s calamity." The writers of the Times’ style guide suggest "change" and "overhaul" as neutral choices.

In the case of the Iranian election, reform is what Moussavi’s supporters want. They want to change what they view as wrong. In the health care debate, advocates want to change what they see as a broken system. The definition of reform has not changed, and journalists have to keep that mind. This is not to say that we shouldn’t use the word in reporting what people do and say about the change they are seeking. We just need to be aware of the baggage the word carries.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.