Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bloated writing and the media urge to ‘add value’

I agree with Michael Kinsley, who says that newspaper writing “is encrusted with conventions that don’t add to your understanding of the news”:

Take, for example, the lead story in The New York Times on Sunday, November 8, 2009, headlined “Sweeping Health Care Plan Passes House.” …
Handing President Obama a hard-fought victory, the House narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system on Saturday night, advancing legislation that Democrats said could stand as their defining social policy achievement.

Fewer than half the words in this opening sentence are devoted to saying what happened. If someone saw you reading the paper and asked, “So what’s going on?,” you would not likely begin by saying that President Obama had won a hard-fought victory. You would say, “The House passed health-care reform last night.” And maybe, “It was a close vote.” And just possibly, “There was a kerfuffle about abortion.” You would not likely refer to “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system,” as if your friend was unaware that health-care reform was going on. Nor would you feel the need to inform your friend first thing that unnamed Democrats were bragging about what a big deal this is—an unsurprising development if ever there was one.

Once upon a time, this unnecessary stuff was considered an advance over dry news reporting: don’t just tell the story; tell the reader what it means. But providing “context,” as it was known, has become an invitation to hype. In this case, it’s the lowest form of hype—it’s horse-race hype—which actually diminishes a story rather than enhancing it. Surely if this event is such a big, big deal—“sweeping” and “defining” its way into our awareness—then its effect on the next election is one of the less important things about it.

This happens all the time. Look at these two opening lines from today’s Independent:

Gordon Brown drew the final line under the failed backbench coup against him by declaring last night that Britain's "hard-won economic recovery" could still be Labour's platform for election victory.

The Northern Ireland First Minister, Peter Robinson, yesterday stepped aside temporarily as his party staged a damage limitation exercise in the wake of the sex and financial scandals surrounding his wife.

Both keen to tell you about the political significance of the events. The Northern Ireland piece does at least state the key fact first, although it then explains it in terms of party politics rather than what might be going on with the governing of NI in his absence. The Labour story, which admittedly is of no significance at all other than for internal party politics, manages to open by saying something about the future (“drew the final line”) before reporting what Brown had said.

One of my personal hates is “in a move that will be seen as”, which reporters use to report on how other reporters will report on stories that the reporter thinks can’t simply be told. Googling the phrase gives 1.3 million hits.

What are your pet journalistic (or, for that matter, blogging) peeves?

6 comments:

Polaris said...

"Moving forward" - In the future?
"Transparency" - Honesty?
"Stakeholders" - FFS...
This could go on sometime, I'll stop...

Chris said...

Recently it's been the use of comments from the web, or even tweets, from random yahoos as evidence for whatever the reporter believes is the truth but can't say themselves because of the conventions of balanced journalism. Of course, this is just a lazier version of the use of anonymous sources, but at least with those you could assume they had some connection with the subject, and were not necessarily representative of anything.

Tom Freeman said...

Ah, that's the voice of the ordinary, authentic person, plucked out of the depths of the internet. What greater authority could there be than the masses? Twix populi vox dei ('the tweet of the people is the voice of God').

Richard T said...

My cyncism barriers go up automatically when I read (and hear) 'Experts say...' They are often not named, frequently singular when you read the piece and seldom unequivocally expert.

This is lazy journalism for the press and sad to say the BBC as well.

Tom Powdrill said...

There's so much to dislike. Focus on 'personalities' in political reporting, constant search for a story arch (and then cherry-picking news which fits it and ignoring/playing down that which doesn't), the fact that a major story can be made out of "bloke says X" even tho nothing has happened, Nick Robinson etc etc.

What's particularly annoying tho these days is the way that some journos (like Nick Robinson) half acknowledge that most people don't care about most political 'news' even when they are commenting on said news.

It goes something like "Of course, for those outside the Westminster bubble today's events are unlikely to register. Nonetheless, could[development x] be the most explosive political revelation in the world. Ever. We'll have to wait and see."

Anonymous said...

The Daily Mail - all of it...