John McIntyre, former president of the American Copy Editors Society and AME of copy desks at The Baltimore Sun, ably makes the point in a new column on Poynter that we no longer can assume our readers will understand the shorthand of allusions we have relied on for so many years in our writing and headlines.
It's tempting to ascribe it all the Internet generation. "But generational differences only begin to explain the situation," he writes. "Cultural diversity has increasingly led to the loss of common frames of reference."
Shakespeare, the Bible -- even the advertising slogan -- no longer are refuges for the writer (as if the advertising slogan ever should have been, but that's for another post on triteness). A student can go through high school and college without ever making the bard's acquaintance. As for "the" Bible, McIntyre notes the mutiplication of texts: "The growing diversity of belief (and unbelief) in this country suggests that reader familiarity with any particular religious book is no longer a safe assumption."
McIntyre urges writers -- and editors -- to examine even more closely whether that allusion they're reaching for is appropriate and will be understood by a wide group. And that, I think, is a wonderful argument for newsroom diversity. Products as we are of our upbringing and surroundings, we should realize it is becoming harder for each of us, individually, to make such determinations. By definition, we see things from within our own fishbowls.
A diverse newsroom, one where co-workers can call on the richness and experience of multiple voices from within (and with growing "citizen journalism" from without), may be the only way we can be sure our allusions work and do not whistle silently past our readers like so many tumbleweeds in the wind.