Weak language is sometimes a symptom of weak journalism.

In his “Editor’s Manifesto,” Jonathan Kern reminds us of some of the most common mistakes we make in our writing. Be wary of pitfalls like the ones Jonathan cites here; they sometimes indicate that our reporting or our grasp of a story isn’t as robust as it should be:

  • Passive voice: “The Bush administration is taking a hit for its position on global warming.” Who’s doing the hitting? We can’t picture the players if they’re not named.
  • Cliches and shopworn phrases: “This decision comes in the wake of a ruling last week,” “the long-simmering dispute has provoked a storm of controversy,” “investors have been taken for a wild ride by the roller coaster stock market,” “public school teachers are leaving in droves” – these are just a few examples of the hundreds of modular phrases journalists use to write with a minimum of effort. It’s understandable: the reporters and news writers are under deadline pressure, and these are the phrases that spring to mind. The editor’s job is not to let them get away with it.
  • Generalities: Keep a sharp eye out for phrases like, “Most people have never heard of,” “Many people think,” “The conventional wisdom is,” and their ilk. They are often simply wrong, and rarely convey much real information.
  • Vague attributions: Vague phrases like “officials say,” “analysts say,” and “critics say” suggest sloppy reporting. Editors should push reporters to be as specific as possible.
  • Jargon and overcomplexity: Part of our job is to make the complex clear. Falling back on technical language might be a sign that we don’t yet understand something well enough to distill it clearly for our audience.

October 28, 2011

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