Opinion/Editorial: Journalism Speak

As a writer, I believe it is important to pay close attention to how others communicate. Both Steven King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” and Hemingway’s similar title, “On Writing” are my go to sources for deciding what to include and what to avoid when crafting a story.

The Hemingway book is a collection of concepts and ideas “Pappa” had to say about the craft. These are presented through a variety of original pieces of correspondence and interviews. All of it put together by a skilled biographer in order to reveal what a true artist believed to be important about getting to the grit of a story.

The King book is more instructive and I find myself consulting it often. Sometimes when I am writing or editing, and other times when I am wondering why something I just read grates on my psyche.  One of the tools King suggests is worth purging from a writer’s tool box is the adverbial tag, which I will cover later in this piece.

Of late, I have experienced that “fingernails on a chalk board” feeling far too often while listening to radio journalists and TV anchors. I think of how great it would be if journalists (and I am sure these things exist) had access to list of words and phrases to avoid in their lexicon. Wouldn’t it be a positive thing to find oneself informed without all the extra meaningless “fill”?

That is my challenge to anyone who wants to be listened to or heard, in writing, speaking, and broadcasting (don’t get me wrong, I love NPR, but they can do better). I would like to hear and see them communicate with the actual skill they possess. So what are these cliche’ words/phrases that grate? Here you go:

  “…boots on the ground. “

“…our correspondent on the ground in….”

Could we just get rid of the whole “…on the ground” cliche all together? YES. If my memory serves, those paraphrases were coined during the DESERT STORM era. Since I was there and in the air (not on the ground), I don’t mind criticizing this set of cliche’s that are over used. D-Storm was mostly an air war, so perhaps our correspondents wanted viewers to respect the credibility of those “on the ground”  or “in the fight” vs those above or in the air. The nearly 30 years of overusing this cliche’ just tells me that journalists today are unimaginative or fail to recognize the value of concise speech.

“Quite frankly…”

Ok, please not another word Mr/Ms Journalist. If what you had to say couldn’t be said with an earnest tone, I don’t want to hear it.

“Going forward….”

“…going forward?”

I hear this combination of words most often with interviews.  Ditching the use of it would result in a better interview.  When I hear it used I get the impression the interviewer is more interested in the listener focusing on them rather than the interviewee (maybe some people just like to hear themselves talk). Considering news worthy events, I like to assume that yes, we will always be going forward. Certainly not backward unless an event or natural disaster causes setbacks or delays. For most situations that might impact future events, a preamble isn’t required.  As in the following:  “So going forward, what would you say…blah blah blah?”  I find it tiresome hearing that over and over again. It doesn’t sound sophisticated either.

“Not unlike…blah blah blah.”

Doesn’t  “similar to” mean the same thing but without the potential confusion?  I trip up every time I see those words paired up in print. I had to re-write a number of essays while in college requiring me to purge of all the “not unlike” phrases from my papers. It cost me entire grades until I discovered how useless it is for a writer. Eventually I even kicked my Tom Clancy novel reading habit too (great stories – but biggest offender of using “not unlike” in his narration).

Steven King’s grammatical term for the examples that follow are called adverbial tags. The term isn’t so important. You’ll get the idea when you read them.

“…, he said glumly.”

“…, she replied sadly.”

When the action is passive and has to be added after the dialog, I’m already feeling a little flat. Flat out bored. It blows my mind how many pulp novels make it up the list with these fundamental flaws of style.

On a positive note, think of the possibility for better reporting, inspired journalism, and pure action and emotion written into fiction novels. When we are no longer inundated with the input of the same cliche’ phrases broadcast over NPR, those journalists will be more respected and the rest of us will no longer feel like we’re being told how to think (when we start talking like the people we listen to, “we’re being assimilated and resistance is futile.”).

The author wrote a more congenial OpEd on this subject and sent it to NPR and his local Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB)

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