What does a label do for a story?  Liberal, moderate, conservative.  Describing a person, idea or organization with such labels is epidemic in many media.  To what end?  And in the journalistic interest of brevity, can they be deleted without harming the story?

This morning’s Washington Post story about Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) including a public option in the healthcare bill has the word liberal or moderate in the story.  (Notably, there was no use of the word conservative.)

It’s as if the reporters want to signal to readers what they should think about an idea by labeling it as liberal, conservative or moderate.  What other use can they have?

Look at the sentences below from the story and tell me what would be lost if they were either eliminated or replaced by a neutral term?  (I’ve struck out instances of those words and replaced some with bold type.)

Reid’s decision was a reversal from two weeks ago, when the Nevada Democrat appeared inclined to set aside the idea — among the most divisive in the reform debate — in an attempt to avoid alienating some in the party moderates.

Engineered by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) as a compromise between moderates those who want a smaller government role and liberals those who prefer a single-payer system, the opt-out proposal is so new to the reform debate that it was never put to a vote during weeks of deliberations by two Senate committees.

Moderate Some Democrats in both the House and Senate are leery of a public insurance plan, calling it an overly aggressive expansion of government that could eventually place new pressures on the federal budget.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid announced Monday that he will include a government-backed insurance plan in the chamber’s health-care reform legislation, a key concession to liberals senators who have threatened to oppose a bill without such a public option.

In a speech at the liberal Center for American Progress, Romer said a public option would serve as "a potentially important source of cost containment" by offering consumers "a competitive, alternative choice, constraining the ability of insurers to raise premiums, and thus containing the growth rate of costs."

Liberal Senators who had threatened to vote against a bill with no public option said they are pleased with Reid’s compromise.

While Democrats praised its ability to control costs, the opt-out public plan represents a much less dramatic approach to federal coverage intervention than liberal advocates had sought — or insurance companies had feared.

I would imagine if you want people to make clear decisions on issues, don’t prejudice the reader by describing the ideas as coming from one end of the spectrum or the other.  If an idea is preceded by “liberal,” conservatives will likely dismiss without considering it, and vice versa.  Besides, what purpose do the labels have in objective, tightly edited stories?

The labels are imprecise at best.  What is a conservative?  What makes a liberal?  What if someone is pro gun ownership, wants to reduce entitlements and supports continuing involvement in Afghanistan?  Does that make me a conservative?