'Journalese' Affects Every Size Market

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By Christopher Jones-Cruise

I continue to hear and read journalese in every size market as well as on broadcast and cable networks. I’ve been writing this column for more than two years now. Isn’t that long enough to have had an effect? Apparently not; American broadcast news writing continues to produce fodder for this columnist as well as columns that I am told get distributed throughout newsrooms and printed and posted on bulletin boards. This is gratifying, but even more gratifying would be to never hear "this as" or "that as."

In June I profiled Jeff Butera in this column; he’s the author of an excellent book on how to write broadcast news and a television news anchor in Florida. (Jeff is also active on Twitter: @WriteLikeUTalk.) He recently called good broadcast news writing a “sign of respect for viewers.” He said it shows you “speak THEIR language, not some language we created just for TV news.”

Why do we write in journalese? Jeff says it’s an excellent question to which he still doesn’t know the answer. “I’m guessing (those who write journalese) feel it sounds more urgent or important, but to me it disengages you from the viewer.” People who agree with Jeff came up with a  list of the phrases they dislike the most: Take matters into their own hands; responded to; police are on the scene; only time will tell; there are more questions than answers tonight; details are sketchy; fighting for his life; finishing touches; gearing up; it goes without saying; hanging in the balance; hard questions; heading to the polls; heating up; here at home; hunker down; ill-fated; in the wake of; just around the corner; just a stone’s throw. Jeff adds to the list often; if you follow him on Twitter you’ll be glad you did.

Some Quick Hits
The royal wedding – American journalism has limited resources and a very heavy news load in the Trump era. That makes it especially difficult to justify any spending, and I mean any, on the upcoming wedding of British Prince Harry to the American actress Meghan Markle. Of course, that American connection will be used to justify the extensive coverage we will no doubt have shoved down our throat, as will the ratings, but in the end we will be spending precious news hours and tens of millions of dollars covering the wedding of a minor American actress to a secondary prince of a long-depleted empire resident on a tiny island.

“He’s a fighter” / “close-knit community” / “close family” – These cliches often appear in reports about someone facing a health challenge and they are meaningless. I mean, how do we know someone is “a fighter,” and if we knew they were a quitter would we say that? And why is every community from which we report "close-knit"? Surely not every community is, but we always say it is.   

“Decimated” – this has come to mean “to destroy a large number,” but, technically it means to reduce something by one-tenth. Merriam-Webster says “it’s totally fine to use ‘decimate’ as a synonym for ‘devastate,’” because the usage is accepted by so many. In other words, English is changing because those who speak it decide what words mean. And that’s not a bad thing, although when I hear “begs the question” misused it never fails to make me cringe.

When someone's mother or father or spouse dies, there's generally no need to note that they were "beloved" by their children or spouse, even if its true. We don't need to be cliche. Show why the person was beloved rather than just saying they were beloved. Otherwise, you're just assuming, aren't you? Not every spouse or mother or father is beloved; for all you know, they could have been awful people and their passing a relief. Its another example of getting in trouble with adjectives. Report what you know, not what you think you know.  

Repeated titles – When we say someone is the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court, we don’t need to then identify them as Judge John Jones. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell does not need to be identified further as a senator. (As an aside, John Roberts is the Chief Justice of the United States, not the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; look it up.)

Do you have any "journalese" words or phrases you've tried to eliminate from your copy? Let us know in the comments below.

Christopher Jones-Cruise is a broadcaster at the Voice of America in Washington and an anchor on the Westwood One Radio Network. His views are his own.