‘BOSSES BLAST CHIEFS’ — or so a typical, tabloid headline might read. It is technically an English sentence. As in, it has a subject, a verb and an object, but the meaning is obscure. That’s because it is a sentence written in journalese: the language of newspapers.
Journalese is generally spoken unconsciously, by tens of thousands of journalists, and is apparently understood by their millions of readers.
One of the first prominent thinkers to describe journalese was the British novelist Keith Waterhouse, in his book ‘On Newspaper Style’, who identified “tabloidese [as he called it]… as a distinct sub-genre”.
But in the decades since publication, many of the former ‘tabloidese’ words have found common usage not just in The Mirror and The Daily Star, but in ‘opinion leader’ publications, such as The Telegraph and The Times as well. Hence the more fitting label of ‘journalese’.
A matter of space
The language of journalism is driven partly by space. For example, how often do you think of the letter ‘m’? The chances are, probably not often. But to a journalist, the letter ‘m’ is a nuisance. It is at least one-and-a-half times the width of most letters. The letter ‘i’ on the other hand, is a little thing of beauty.
This obsession over small and large letters matters when writing headlines. Short words that have a lot of meaning are very valuable. ‘Rise’ is better than ‘growth’. Likewise, there is no reason to waste space on ‘attempt’ when one can opt for ‘bid’ instead.
Journalese is also about excitement; trying to catch people’s attention and keep it. In that case, exciting words, such as ‘rant’ are definitely preferred over boring alternatives, such as ‘talks’.
Then there are the clichés, which despite their constant overuse, are relied on because they still remain effective. Journalese isn’t meant to be difficult or high culture. It is simply meant to communicate information quickly, engagingly, and often to get the full attention of people who aren’t really listening.
A matter of emotion
One of the great tasks of journalese is to see the surprise-value in something that to many others is perfectly routine. Royal correspondents especially, managed to insert shock-value into a story about William and Kate getting married after eight years as a couple. Equally skilled journalists can find the surprise in a soldier being shot at on tour in Afghanistan, or if two politicians have had a disagreement in the Houses of Parliament.
The news reporter Robert Hutton once half-jokingly said that journalists use a “Journalese Scale for Fear” to make anxious reporting consistent across mediums. Ranging from ‘calm’ (as in ‘India border situation calm’ — a zero on the scale) to ‘alarm’ (‘alarm sounds on India border’ — a five on the scale) all the up to number 10, ‘terror on India border’.
It is perhaps not surprising that journalese has its detractors, as journalists and journalism itself is one of the least trusted and indeed, most hated, professions in the eyes of the general public. For the sake of this article, we will only look at criticisms from within the industry, and some of the most common complaints are as follows:
- Journalese is clichéd. Some journalists still call on decades old imagery to invoke a response. This is not healthy; and readers pay for and deserve fresh clichés.
- Lazy writing encourages lazy thought. There is a common joke in journalism that every story to do with politics should be framed as a question of which politician should have to resign. The world is more subtle, and more interesting, than sometimes journalese will allow.
- It isn’t essential. The better the news story, the fewer journalese words there should be in the reports. Good stories in plain English sell themselves. Whereas critics have likened journalese to the poker player’s ‘tell’. More journalese is the sign of a weak story.
- It can do a disservice to the reader. The general public have developed a distaste for ambiguous writing that could be deceptive, but journalese has another problem. Journalists can essentially be writing to one another, in a code that readers won’t understand. For example, would you know that ‘Lag on the run’ refers to an escaping convict? If not then, far from being concise and to the point, journalese has failed.
But journalese also has its defenders, and merits of its own. Consider the following:
- It works when space is at a premium. There just isn’t much room in headlines, and people (mostly) understand what is being said even in so few words. (For the record, ‘premium’ is a terrible word in journalism, as it consists of seven letters and two ‘m’s’. ‘Pricey’ would be better.)
- Journalese is a lively, exciting language. It carries the reader along and provides entertainment as well as information.
- It is familiar. Everyone knows what ‘crisis talks’ refers to, and so in this sense journalese can be very effective.
Bad or good, some journalists have left a powerful mark on the way we think about society. The inventors of some phrases deserve our acknowledgement. For example, the phrases ‘mad cow disease’ and ‘test-tube baby’ have even passed out of the newspapers and entered common usage. These phrases are near perfect, and at the time were original. Most people probably don’t even recognise them as the products of journalese at all.