WORDS THAT HURT
Exclusive! The Words That Journalists Overuse
How the Web and journalists turned once powerful adjectives into nothing but hype. By Michael Moynihan.
In George Orwell’s 1984, an employee of the Ministry of Truth, tasked with creating the Newspeak dictionary, explains to Winston Smith that his job is often misunderstood. “You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words,” says Syme, the Dr. Johnson of Oceania. “We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day ... It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
I suppose one isn’t supposed to agree with Comrade Syme, although I too happily advocate the destruction of needless and obfuscating words. My purpose in doing so is slightly less sinister; a desire for journalistic clarity, not political purity. The hunger for more clicks, to get news out faster than your rivals, encourages the use of time-saving weasel words and chest-puffing claims of “exclusive” this and “breaking” that. I should save readers the trouble and admit, somewhat shamefacedly, that I too am likely guilty of using the words and phrases below, and almost all of them, I assume, have been employed on this website.
But my rehab begins today. What follows are a list of words routinely employed by journalists that must, to again invoke Orwell, be committed to the “memory hole.”
Exclusive: Possibly the most misused word in journalism, and one that should be used only when an interview subject submits to questioning by your news organization and no other, often on specific topic (Lance Armstrong’s chat with Oprah qualifies as an exclusive). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “exclusive” as something “in which others have no share, esp. of journalistic news or other published matter.”
So there is ABC News’s Diane Sawyer advertising an exclusive preview of a forthcoming exclusive interview with President Obama. An odd thing, too, considering it is the president’s responsibility to convey to the country his views on various policy issues, which he does frequently. Indeed, the Nexis archives are littered with “exclusive” interviews with the Obamas, sometimes occurring within weeks of each other and covering similar topics.
But it’s difficult to wrangle an interview with the president—the White House prefers to pitch interviews directly to 60 Minutes, where he’s more likely to get an easy hearing. The use of “exclusive” is often used as a pat on one’s own back for managing a White House invitation.
Having bought The New Republic and installed himself as editor in chief, Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes has also appointed himself as a professional journalist (all of us writers must start somewhere). And in the first issue of the new New Republic, readers are treated to Hughes’s cream-puff interview with President Obama, conducted alongside real journalist Franklin Foer, which The New York Times trumpeted as an “exclusive interview” with the president. A few days later, 60 Minutes conducted its own Obama interview, with outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his side. And a handful of days after the 60 Minutes broadcast, ABC News offered viewers an “exclusive interview” with Clinton.
When clubs become so exclusive that everyone gets in, the clever kids stop going.
Breaking: I have an app on my iPhone called “Breaking News” that pings and bings at all hours, passing on monumentally pointless stories that require my immediate attention. Currently resting atop the pile of broken news, is the following story: “Officials Unload Elephants Onto Interstate 70 Following Crash in Indiana After Semi Hauling the Animals Slid off Road.” Ignore the clumsy headline and acknowledge that while this might be an important news story for both Indiana drivers and pachyderm enthusiasts, how it merits a “breaking” tag—which once hinted at an unfolding story of relative importance—could best explained by the company’s marketing team.
Cable-news viewers will be familiar with this popular breaking news scenario: an unknown sociopath with face tattoos and pumped full of methamphetamines steals a car for unknown reasons and decides to evade the Los Angeles police (it’s always in L.A.) by driving in the wrong direction on an interstate. A camera-equipped helicopter gives chase, and the Chyron declares that breaking news is happening, despite knowing nothing about the perpetrator or his alleged crime. When the car crashes (they always crash), the story is broken and never mentioned again.
A better word, with less urgency—so of absolutely zero interest to news editors—is the more accurate “developing.” In other words, something interesting just happened, and we’ll bring you updates as required.
Unbiased, nonpartisan: Back to journalist Hughes, who demonstrates the perils of starting a new career at the top when he wrote, in the first issue of the new New Republic, that the magazine of liberal opinion will “strive to be free of party ideology or partisan bias.” It won’t, and it shouldn’t. Reflexive references to the evil of “bias” and “ideology” in biased and ideological publications should signal to readers that what follows isn’t worth reading.
The same is true for the word “nonpartisan.” Think tanks like the conservative American Enterprise Institute and liberal Center for American Progress describe themselves as nonpartisan, which always induces eyerolls. But this isn’t wrong, because neither explicitly endorses candidates or a party, but it’s a distinction without a difference. (See also “fair and balanced.”)
National conversation: An issue dear to a writer or politician’s heart—and one ignored by the know no-nothing public—that has not been decided in one’s favor, therefore requiring a “national conversation” to force the proper result. After the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, we were supposed to have a “national conversation” about the “extreme rhetoric” of American politics. After Newtown, we are engaged in a “national conversation” about gun control.
In the last week, I have been told that, as a responsible citizen, I must participate in a “serious national conversation about” marijuana, carbon emissions, income inequality, immigration, and “helping our kids get healthy.” According to Google News, the phrase “national conversation” has spread like the Norovirus, and it will likewise induce vomiting. In short, “national conversations” are orchestrated and led by the media—which rather enjoy unidirectional conversations—and generally ignored by the American people.
Walked it back: If a politician or public figure is caught lying, journalists will likely employ the gentle euphemism that a statement has been “walked back.” Avoid if possible; the phrase “[x] was caught lying and sheepishly acknowledged it” is preferable.
Some say, experts say, critics say: Varieties of this weasel phrase are employed to provide “balance” and authority to stories, often where none is needed. How many experts say that vaccines are harmful to babies? What qualifies them as an expert? How many people are required for a journalist to write that “some say” something? The answer is usually one—the cab driver who picked up the journalist from the airport will usually suffice.
Trolling: I should start by acknowledging that Mother Jones writer Adam Serwer, a clever and trustworthy sort, tells me that “trolling” is a useful word to describe someone “arguing in bad faith [or] engaging in deliberate needless provocation.” A good word, that. But the meaning of “trolling” has, unfortunately, gotten flabby, and it’s now deployed by journalists, mostly on Twitter, to object to everything from punchy and provocative headlines to arguments with which they disagree. Slate technology writer Farhad Manjoo succinctly explained what “troll” now means: “Anytime you don’t like something someone else is saying, or even if you do like what he’s saying but think he might be saying it the wrong way, there’s a very good chance you’re dealing with a troll.”
This is very much an abbreviated list. A book-length treatment would be more satisfying, but one must start somewhere. And I should provide general attribution to my Twitter followers, who rose to the occasion when asked for assistance and provided some very good suggestions, many of which overlapped with mine and others that I shamelessly pilfered. Some might seem rather obvious, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth repeating. And if I have gotten anything wrong, simply email me, and I will walk everything back.