Brian Shrader's Siteseeing Blog

News Clichés

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

8 Comments

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  • Brian Shrader Jul 6, 2007

    Just helping you with your "street cred." It's crucial.

  • .Milky Jul 6, 2007

    You are absolutely correct Brian...ehem... I mean, you da man!

  • Brian Shrader Jul 6, 2007

    .Milky... I think the proper usage is "da bomb." Nonetheless, it's *so* 1999. ;)

  • .Milky Jul 6, 2007

    I agree with pancakesfan again. The tease is, "Some televisions sold in the US have been rigged by terrorists to expload during comercials! Stay tuned for a list after these messages."

    I also agree with Brian, wral.com is the bomb. And, I'm not just saying that as a lame attempt to get "terrorist" and "bomb" into the same post for shock effect. I am really so old that I think things are still 'the bomb'.

  • xxxxxxxxxxxxx Jul 5, 2007

    I always love the "news" story about how crowded the mall is on the day after Thanksgiving - what a news flash! Or the airport on T-Day, for that matter.

    Or the poor soul being blown to pieces outside in a hurricane or an ice storm to demonstrate how bad the weather is. We get it - go inside!

  • chickenwire Jul 5, 2007

    i cant stand it when the news is told so that an inanimate object kills people or causes other problems, such as: THE SUV FLIPPED INTO A DITCH KILLING THE DRIVER. no, the driver flipped the suv! or, THE GUN KILLED....,no the person pulling the trigger killed........

  • Brian Shrader Jul 5, 2007

    The ABC affiliate in Philadelphia, WPVI, is one of the legendary TV news operations in the country. They begin almost every newscast exactly like that, Packandcanesfan. They'll tease two or three stories, then say, "But the BIG story on Action News..."

    You bring up an interesting point about how people consume news now. Reading or watching news on the Web is a lot different from watching a linear TV newscast. You can scan the home page of WRAL.com and pick exactly what you want. When you watch the 6 p.m. news, you get a linear, 30-minute presentation of what we think you'll want to know about. I like to contrast the list of most-viewed stories on WRAL.com with the order of stories we air on WRAL News. They're usually different.

    The future of news is going to be interesting. ;)

  • packandcanesfan Jul 5, 2007

    One thing that bugs me to no end is when an upcoming story of interest is brought up and I think it is finally time to hear the info..and then the anchor says "but first..". I really hate that. :)

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