How “weasel voice” helped the New York Times build a 3,000-word narrative about a sexual con job in the “sugar dating” realm (and 3 reasons you should avoid the paper’s approach to this in your writing).

The basic rule of journalism that states, “Just tell me what happened and why I should care as a reader,” is often undermined when journalists rely on soft language and euphemisms. We talked about this at length in the discussion of “weasel voice” in writing and in terms of how writers get a bad rap for their linguistic gymnastics.

However, the following story was something weasel-riffic, thanks to an odd confluence of the story topic and the overwriting common to the New York Times. In the most basic terms, you could boil this story down to a simple sentence:

A woman using a borderline legal implied-sex-for-cash website got conned by a guy who claimed to be rich but wasn’t, thus leaving her stuck with a hotel bill after a three-way.

That sentence is 31 words, but the Times took a bit more time to tell this story. More than 3,000 words and one really awkward correction later, the Times’ had finished its clinic on euphemistic weasel voice. Consider some of the following descriptions and how you can practically see the writer using “air quotes” to the point of developing carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • The headline starts with the term “sugar date,” to describe the arrangement between young women and older men looking for an implied-sex-for-cash hook up.
  • A subhead refers to this concept as “Escorting 2.0,” like it’s some sort of software upgrade.
  • This chunk of text: Last winter, a friend told her about the concept of “sugar-dating”: a “sugar baby” (most often a woman or a gay man) connecting with a “sugar daddy” (a man) in a relationship that offers financial support in exchange for companionship and possibly sex. Accelerated by the anonymity of the internet, sugar-dating is a variation on “escorting,” that practice formerly advertised at the back of New York magazine and the now-defunct Village Voice newspaper. (When you need four sets of euphemism quotes and two parentheticals to get a concept across to your readers, you’re probably having a bad writing day.)
  • It refers to as “a website that helps people interested in monetized dating find each other.” I found it odd that the term “monetized dating” didn’t get quote marks, but it fits the bill of every other euphemism here for prostitution.
  • It uses the term “hypergamy” to refer to the concept of marrying for money.
  • It refers to the website’s founder’s other hookup site for married people who want to have sex with other people as part of an “ethical cheating” movement. This reminds me of other oxymorons like “jumbo shrimp” and “real artificial butter.”
  • This sentence officially lost me when it came to what gets the air quotes and what doesn’t: There, some 200 attendees, many silkily coifed young women, paid $50 apiece for admission to panels on topics like styling, personal branding and “financial literacy.” Why is “financial literacy” in quotes? What the heck could that possibly be euphemistic for?

By this point I “officially” ran out of “the overwhelming desire” to find the “air-quoted material” in this “story” about “sugar dating.” (I almost needed to buy a loot box full of air quotes for this post…)

This isn’t to pick on this particular writer or this particular topic, but it does raise some questions about what makes for a story, how you should tell the story and what is an acceptable amount of “weasel voice.” Consider the following points:


When you dig into a story that isn’t a story, consider Filak’s First Rule of Holes:

In reading this story, I found that there were about three or four directions this could have gone that would have been valuable to readers. It could have been a look at how the “sugar industry” works. It could have been about the dangers associated with “monetized dating.” It could have been about the legal issues surrounding these sites. It could have been about the long con this guy (and I’m sure others) are pulling on cash-strapped women who apply to the sites. I’m sure I’m missing other “deep digs” it could have hit.

Instead, it kind of talked about each of these in passing all while telling this one story about this person who was taken advantage of by one guy at one point in time. If she had been a narrative thread for any of these larger concerns, this might have been worth 3,000+ words. However, she was the whole point, which made this feel… perplexing. I found myself like “The Bobs” in this “Office Space” interview:

The duty to report is not the same as the duty to write, so when you find that a story isn’t really doing a whole heck of a lot, you might want to reconsider your approach, your sources or your sense that this is a story at all. Follow Filak’s First Rule of Holes: When you find your self in one, stop digging.


A Feature Approach Doesn’t Mean You Aren’t Doing Journalism

When I first taught feature writing, I had a full class of 15 students and at least that many on the waiting list. They came with the idea that the class fell somewhere between creative writing and a haiku seminar. By the time they figured out how I ran the class, I think I was down to eight students and nobody on the waiting listed wanted to join in the fun.

Features require observation, depth and clarity that couple with strong reporting and valuable content. The observation part was there, almost to a fault, in that I felt like I was reading one of George R.R. Martin’s descriptions of meals in the “Game of Thrones” series or Bret Easton Ellis’ “label-dropping” in the first chapter of “American Psycho.” (I had to Google some make-up and hair-do terminology as well as find out what made certain hotels worth name-dropping…)

However, the story failed to measure up in terms of meeting journalistic rigor for reporting and storytelling standards. If this guy really is conning multiple women on this site, why is he not being reported to some form of authority? If the site is doing a “caveat emptor” approach, that’s one big story. If the police don’t have a tool for stopping this, that’s another big story. (And possibly a call for some legislative discussion as there was to establish punishment for revenge porn and up-skirt photography.)

At the very least, if he’s a scummy weasel, as the author seemed to confirm, why did this guy get away without being named? That was a confusing choice.

Why is this a story now? Even features need a time peg. Is the site changing its approach? Is “Ron/Jay/Mr. Mystery” back on the prowl again? Is there a new law or a new rule that makes this relevant? This isn’t a case of “She should have come forward earlier,” as people can tell their stories at any point they so choose. That said, the writer needs to make it clear why we’re hearing it now and why it should matter to the readers now.

At least a half dozen other holes emerge in the reporting here and there, often brushed over with a weak parenthetical explanation. The writer owes the readers value and clarity. Neither seem prominent here.


Avoid Words That Obscure Reality

When you find yourself using jargon, euphemism or other code words in your writing, you aren’t helping your readers understand your story. This tends to happen when technical topics overwhelm reporters or when PR professionals use terms common to their field but that other people don’t understand.

This isn’t to say that you should blunt the language to the point of distraction, but there has to be a limit as to how much “air quoting” or euphemistic writing you should do. The chunk of weasel voice outlined above clearly demonstrates this, but here’s a paragraph with one term that still has me puzzled:

He said that he looked for women on SeekingArrangement and advertised himself on Tinder as a “sugar daddy” — his profile urged women to “swipe right if looking to be spoiled” — solely because he thought it was a good way to meet women for non-transactional hookups.

I’m uncertain as to the pairing of “non-transactional” and “hookup” in that sentence or if it means what the guy, the writer or what I thought it meant. (Another Google search led me down the path of software engineering… I think… before I found the “do’s” and “don’t’s” of being “an aspiring sugar baby” at the Thought Catalog site. It made me want to beg my wife to never leave me, for fear of what’s in the dating pool out there, and then it made me want to take a potato peeler to my eyeballs.)

Since you can’t use terms like “money for sex” or more direct terms without running afoul of the law, the author here (and others as well) refer to this as “transactional relationships.” A “non-transactional” relationship, thus would appear to be one that lacked a quid-pro-quo approach to the interaction. Or, as you would normally call it, a “relationship.”

When the author refers to this guy running his game on the site in this way, it sounds like he’s saying he puts himself out there as a rich guy because he figured he’d attract women even though he never had any intention of paying them.

If that’s the case, say that. As a reader, I would then be able to say, “Wait a minute, isn’t that fraud? I think I saw a ‘Law & Order: SVU’ episode on that topic at one point…” If that’s not what he meant, make it clearer what he was saying. It’s not a direct quote, so the euphemism is that of the writer. As it stands, I have no idea what I’m seeing.

And that’s the larger point about this article and the writing style: Euphemism and jargon kill it under the guise of a feature format and the effort to make this appear less shady than it is.

I’m not making a moral argument here. You want to hook up with people for any reason whatsoever, go for it. You want to write about those people, that’s fine, too. I’ve read news stories that would make John Waters blush and a Billy Goat puke. That’s not the issue. It’s the lack of directness that limits good writing and quality journalism.

It’s why news obituaries use the term “died” instead of “passed away,” “expired” or “spun from the mortal coil.” It’s also why we avoid phrases like “now singing with the angels” or “resting safely in the arms of Jesus.” (I’ve seen all of these at one point or another.) They obscure reality and make life difficult on the readers.

The fact of the matter is these terms like “sugar baby” and “sugar daddy” and “monetized dating” are easy enough to translate from weasel voice into more direct language. In not doing so, the author harmed the story, irritated the readers and provided little to the sum of human knowledge. If you face situations where people try to obscure reality by telling you they “depopulated an area with an explosive aerial assault” (bombed a village) or “engaged in disinformation” (lied) or “exchanged angry hand gestures” (raised their middle fingers), you need to cut through the obfuscation and give your readers a clear sense of reality.

In short, just tell me what happened and why I care in a clear, concise and coherent way.

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