“Free” vs “included”

As the new semester starts at FIU, one of the more ballyhooed bits of news was the launching of the “free” shuttle between the main campus in Sweetwater and the Biscayne Bay Campus in North Miami.

Prior to the vote by the university’s board of trustees over the summer, students paid $2.50 to make the 25-mile, hour-long (or much longer) trek between the campuses. But it is not “free” as FIU’s public relations folks and student government officials keep touting. Instead, students had about $5 tacked on to their fees each semester — a good deal for those that need the shuttle, indeed, but not free. A better word would be “included.”

FIU has about 57,000 students total, with BBC having a listed enrollment of about 7,000. Certainly more than 7,000 students use the shuttle regularly, but it’s definitely not everyone. Though it’s admittedly a guess, I would think about 10,000 — or not quite 20 percent — would get value from this. The pain, so to speak, of an extra $10 a year, though, is pretty small for the other 80 percent. And, given the burden of the $250 per semester (or more) cost to the regular commuters, it seems like a good trade-off from my perspective.

But things like this are an excellent object lesson in the power of words. In large part, journalism is about providing the full picture and context of official actions, not simply parroting the words provided by them. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to an adversarial relationship between the press and those we cover, as seen by this editorial in Panther Now.

From a branding point of view, “free” is definitely more succinct than “now included in student fees,” but, unfortunately, does not have the virtue of being accurate.

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