Posted July 5, 2007
I was sitting here in the newsroom this morning, half-watching CNN.
The reporter was doing a story about how hot it gets inside of cars. He sat in the front seat with a thermometer, and the temperature soared about 135 degrees Fahrenheit within 15 minutes. Covered in sweat, he steps out of the car and says, "It's unthinkable to think of a child or pet in a hot car for that long."
Well, if you're thinking of it, is it "unthinkable"?
"The unthinkable" is one of those horrible newsy clichés. They usually make no sense or have no value, but they sound good. At least, they sound right.
"Motorist" is another. It's a word that only news reporters use. Those are "drivers" to you and me. When you're talking with your friends about those people driving cars, do you say, "I get so mad when motorists cut me off"? Now that I read that, you probably use another "unthinkable" term in place of "motorist."
Peggy Noonan wrote a column in February about presidential candidates trying to find their messages. She also wrote about the relationship between modern people and the modern media:
The most dismaying thing I've noticed the past 10 years on television is that ordinary people who are guests on morning news shows--the man who witnessed the murder, the housewife who ran from the flames--speak, now, in perfect sound bites. They also cry on cue. They used to ramble, like unsophisticated folk, and try to keep their emotions to themselves. Anchors had to take them in hand. "But what happened then?" Now the witness knows what's needed, and how to do it. "And when she didn't come home, Matt, I knew: this is not like her. And I immediately called the authorities."
Why does this dismay? Because it's another stepping away from the real. Artifice detaches us even from ourselves.
Exactly! Ordinary people now speak in perfect, vapid, meaningless soundbites -- the way they've been "trained" to speak by all of those worthless phrases they hear on the news. I heard a soundbite from a local story a few weeks ago that sounded like a parody of "news-speak." Something was this person's "worst nightmare." They were "shocked and saddened," but the investigation is "now underway" and they're sending their "heartfelt condolences." Oh, my. What a weird way to say, "It's horrible, and I'm thinking of the family. I hope they catch whoever did it."
Mervin Block is well-known to broadcast newsfolks. He's a writing coach and author of excellent books about writing for broadcast news. Block's Web site has some great articles about bad newswriting.
One of the articles highlights a list of words and phrases that WLS-TV in Chicago has banned from its newscasts. The list is full of those empty, but important-sounding clichés you hear on radio and TV news. Click here to read it. How often do you hear those on the news? Do they ever add anything to the story? Do they advance it? Do they provide more information? No. They're usually just filler.
We have our list of such phrases within WRAL News. Nobody's perfect, and those insidious little verbal crutches do make it on the air. But lists like these are nice reminders to do what we all should do before we speak -- taking a little time to think.