Clean up your news copy syntax

September 19, 2017 01:30

By Christopher Jones-Cruise, RTDNA Contributor

I write often (excessively? obsessively?) about "journalese," that strange language that broadcast – and sometimes print – journalists use. I see it as a virulent strain of American English. It is variously defined as “a superficial, cliché-ridden style of writing regarded as typical of” news writers and “the style of writing often held to be characteristic of (news writers), distinguished by clichés, sensationalism, and triteness of thought” and “characterized by use of neologism and unusual syntax.” (What the heck is neologism?)
 
Four phrases exemplify the “unusual syntax” of journalese for me:
 
  • Comes amid
  • In the wake of
  • On the heels of
  • In the face of
These are phrases that are almost never used by non-journalists but are used often (excessively? obsessively?) by broadcast news writers, reporters and anchors.
 
Why?
 
As I have opined before, I believe we write this way because we have grown up hearing it from the mouths of our role models. We want to be broadcasters, so we act like the broadcasters who are further along in their careers than we are in ours. We hear these successful broadcasters use certain constructions and we begin aping them. And, sad to say, some journalism schools fail to emphasize news writing in their curricula. This produces bad news writing.  
 
And let’s note that we also use these constructions because it is easy to do so and because we can often think of no alternative -- and certainly not on deadline.
 
But it’s good to step back from our personal and professional lives on occasion and ask why we do what we do in the way we do it. In the case of broadcast news writers, we should step back and ask why we speak or write so weirdly sometimes. Why do we use words and phrases and expressions and constructions that non-journalists don’t? Why do we say “an Oklahoma woman,” “a New York man,” or “local residents”? Who taught us to speak or write like that? And who continues to let us speak or write this way?
 
So, as a public service, I’d like to offer some alternatives to those aforementioned four awful phrases.
 
  • Comes amid: after
  • In the wake of: after
  • On the heels of: after
  • In the face of: after
OK, so that’s a bit too cute, and not always and everywhere applicable, but it’s not completely inaccurate, wouldn’t you agree?
 
So, let me expand:   
 
  • The praise for the New York Police Department comes amid tensions between city hall and the NYPD’s rank and file. How about: “The praise for the New York police department is being heard as tensions rise between city hall and the department’s rank-and-file.” That isn’t the best sentence, but its better than “comes amid…”
  • But Lutz tells us “we’re expecting to almost double that within the next week or so” in the wake of publicity from the show. (how about because of, or after?)
  • It follows on the heels of a vote in the Senate and expected presidential veto at some point too. (again, after)
  • Vice President Joe Biden has persevered in the face of his very public grief. (This is just an awful sentence and needs a complete rewrite, and “in the face of” should be absent.)
Every one of these examples comes from… NPR. I could list many more examples from that organization for each rancid phrase. Yes, even the vaunted NPR is guilty. Okay, I’m picking on NPR here, but intentionally so, because we associate the organization with credible, well-edited reports written with an appreciation for the proper use of language. But even an organization with this reputation can fall, in fact has fallen, into bad habits, its copy riddled with clichés.
 
In the face of such a large amount of bad news writing, and on the heels of a well-intentioned column written in the wake of my frustration with so many stories that come amid deadline pressure, let’s resolve to do better.
 
That includes NPR, but it also includes me – and more than likely you too.


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.