20 cliches of journalism

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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A bombshell from noted hack Robert Hutton is set to blow the lid on journalistic cliches.

“Journalese has become my obsession,” he confesses in a commentary for the Daily Telegraph.

Every time I note an example, people send me 10 more. It’s everywhere, and once you understand it, it changes how you see the world. Last week, I turned on the radio to learn that “momentum is building for an attack on Syria”. To a non-speaker of journalese, that might sound exciting. I knew the real meaning: “the story hasn’t changed since last night.”

And yet, mindful perhaps of keeping his colleagues onside, Hutton says he’s no enemy of the stuff.

I can tell you all the things that are wrong with journalese: it’s clichéd; lazy writing betrays lazy thought; good stories don’t need it; it’s a code. And there are phrases I hate: “tragic tot” is an awful, glib way to write about a dead child, and its use should be a criminal offence. But I have a “shameful secret”.

The more I see, the more I like it. That’s why I don’t see my collection as an attack on fellow reporters. If I thought it was under threat, I would campaign for government protection. Perhaps we could demand road signs in two languages, as in Wales: “Accident Ahead – Long Queues”/“Horror Death Smash – Nightmare Jam”.

Some examples of the form, as documented by Hutton in his book, Romps, Tots and Boffins … The Strange Language of News, and excerpted in the Telegraph and the Independent:

Acolytes Supporters of someone with whom we disagree.

Arcane Rules Ones we can’t be bothered to explain.

Brutal dictator One who kills his opponents slowly. If he just has them all shot, use ”ruthless dictator’’. If our government could easily ”topple him’’, but can’t be bothered, use ”tinpot dictator’’.

Budding Someone under 20 who’s good at something.

Clamour We’ve written two editorials about this. If there’s one in today, refer to a ”growing clamour’’.

Coffers Where organisations of which we disapprove keep money.

Considering The all-purpose unfalsifiable policy story. No one will ever be able to convincingly deny that they’ve considered something.

Deepened What happened to people’s difficulties last night.

Humiliating U-turn Any adjustment in policy.

Ill-fated Frankly, it was inevitable that anything that ”started as an innocent day out’’ would turn out to have ”ended in tragedy’’.

Influential Any group that can get a letter printed in a national paper.

Mystery surrounds In time, it may deepen. Right now, we don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Perfect storm Two bad things have happened to someone at the same time.

Potentially fatal Well, potentially. I mean, a peanut is potentially fatal.

Raft The standard unit of “measures”. Under the imperial system, a “cocktail of measures” is an eighth the size of a raft. A “whole raft of measures” is a raft plus a cocktail.

Red-faced What council chiefs usually are after a “humiliating U-turn” over parking charges.

Set to Sounds like it means ”will’’, but if it turns out the story is wrong, you can point out it only actually means ”may’’.

Special Investigation A normal investigation, but with a picture byline for the reporter.

Troubled Small country currently enjoying a lull between civil wars.

War-torn Anywhere foreign correspondents know a decent bar for every night of the week.

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One Response to “20 cliches of journalism”

  1. Nick Grant Sep 13 2013, 6:00pm

    Not dissimilar to a list circulating way back in 2005 that I cut and pasted for future reference. Haven't been able to establish provenance beyond Aussie site Crikey, which credits its email inbox as the source. Anyway, depending on what the Listener comments section can cope with, lengthwise, here’s the full list (note: it features a couple of words you probably wouldn’t want your eight-year-old reading but we’re all adults here, right?)
    A user's guide to journalistic cliches
    Ever read something in the papers that's had you scratching your head and wondering just what the reporter was trying to say? Here's a cut-out-and-keep glossary of journalistic cliches.
    Feisty: Short, old female
    Flamboyant: Homosexual
    Controversial: He did something bad but we're not sure what
    Scandal-plagued: Guilty
    Informed source: Reads the newspaper
    Confirmed bachelor: see "Flamboyant"
    War-torn: We can't find it on a map
    Venerable: Should be dead but isn't (eg: Gough Whitlam)
    Knowledgable observer: The reporter
    Knowledgable observers: The reporter and the person at the next desk
    Self-styled: Phony
    Guru: see "Self-styled"
    Screen Legend: Reporter is too young to remember his movies
    Teen idol: Reporter is too old to have heard of him
    According to published reports: We got scooped
    Embattled: He should quit
    Troubled youth: arsonist
    Scrappy: a runt
    Beloved: Someone who's been around so long no one can stand them any more (eg: Bert Newton)
    Hero firefighter: He put out a fire
    Hero cop: He got killed
    Honor student: Dead kid registered for classes somewhere
    Recently: We lost the press release
    First in the modern history of ... : no entries in NewsLink
    Never: Not in NewsLink or Google
    Source who spoke on condition of anonymity: PR flack
    Prestigious: has indoor plumbing
    Exclusive neighborhood/school/club: the reporter can't get in
    Mean streets: slums
    Street-wise: Hasn't been hit by a bus so far
    Allegedly: He did it but we can't prove it
    Shocking revelation: leaked on a slow news day
    Highly placed source: one who would talk
    Supermodel: her picture was printed somewhere
    Beautiful: a woman who's been savagely murdered
    Blonde: see "beautiful"
    Reportedly: we stole this bit of information
    Intensely private: Not promoting anything right now
    Rarely interviewed: Promoting something right now
    Highbrow: boring
    Family Values: right wing idiot
    Progressive: left wing idiot
    Couldn't be reached for comment: the reporter didn't call until after 5pm
    Legendary: about to die
    Unclear, uncertain, unknown at press time: no one will tell us
    Plucky: someone who is very young, very old, or very short who is ambulatory
    Brutally raped: raped
    Savagely murdered: murdered
    Celebrity: He has a publicist
    Superstar: He has a publicist and an agent
    Modest, well-kept home: at least the cockroaches are dead
    Exclusive: We were the only ones who returned the PR flack's calls
    Gentleman bandit: he wore shoes instead of sneakers
    Police task force: cops who were working on no-publicity cases yesterday
    Elite: see prestigious
    Conflagration: what was a fire in the first paragraph, a blaze in the second and an inferno in the third
    Outspoken: Rude man
    Strident: Rude woman
    Effervescent: She won't shut up
    Shapely: face like the back of a bus
    Full-figured: Tits out to here
    Statuesque: Tits out even further
    Diminutive: under 5 feet tall
    Petite: emaciated
    Sexy: better looking than reporter's mate
    Dogged by character issue: He screwed a floozy
    Political Action Committee contribution: bribe
    Moderate: fence-straddler
    Long-time companion: they had sex
    Socialite: unemployed woman who lives in Toorak
    Heiress: as above, but able to hire a pricey divorce lawyer
    Good Samaritan: Too stupid to run away
    Innocent bystander: Too slow to run away
    Tearful: Could have been crying
    Choked up: Definitely could have been crying
    Weeping: Tear spotted in one eye
    Entrepreneur: Hasn't made it yet, but we're doing a nice story about him
    Mogul: Has made it, and we're doing a hatchet job
    Mega-mogul: Has made it, and is in process of losing it
    Activist: Will talk to press
    Stunned: couldn't give a decent quote
    Dapper: Hasn't bought new clothes in 20 years
    Hot-button issue: only editors care about it
    Towing industry expose: editor got a parking ticket
    With news wire services: no original reporting whatsoever
    Report Report

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