The Sunlight Foundation aims to strengthen democracy by giving the public a better idea of what governmental officials are up to – making visible activity that might otherwise go unseen. But it generated huge amounts of media attention last month for a report on public speech-making by Congressional representatives.
“Congress Talking Dumber,” was the New York Daily News’ headline on the report, which looked at sentence and word lengths to conclude that Congressional speeches had declined a full grade level since 2005.
“The sophistication of Congressional speech-making is on the decline,” National Public Radio reported. The report pointed fingers at newly elected Republican representatives for bringing the level of discourse to the level of your average high-school sophomore.
But hold on. Is it bad communication to strive to make sure what you say can be understood by as many people as possible?
Let’s say your job is handling the technical details of a product and your boss is not trained in your field. She asks you to describe your recent activity and you launch into a highly technical description. Someone with the same job as you would understand, but your boss is scratching her head and asking you to recast what you said in plain English. “I can’t do that,” you protest. “That would require me to dumb down the message, and I’m too sophisticated to do so.”
How well is that statement going to go over at the unemployment office when you try to explain your new jobless status?
Back to the Congressional representatives. They are employed by whom? That’s right – those pesky taxpayers. And if members of Congress are concerned about what the electorate thinks, they shouldn’t hide their views and actions behind multisyllabic verbal walls only a hard-core policy wonk could penetrate, right?
On the other hand, there is such a thing as so oversimplifying an issue that the truth is lost and the listener is misled. And politicians do this all the time, as becomes clear in each election cycle.
The Sunlight Foundation’s report relied on a very blunt analytical tool called the Flesch-Kincaid test on readability to draw its conclusions. The irony is that in evaluating the sophistication of Congressional communication, the foundation ran millions of words through an overly simplistic filter. And despite some impressive-looking graphics, the report was – as Shakespeare might have described it – “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”