What Are the Worst Journalism Cliches?


shutterstock_158484926Earlier this week at the Washington Post, Carlos Lozada compiled a list of the 150 worst journalistic cliches. As a writer who’s not immune to falling prey to a few of these tics, I winced a few times. As an editor who stalks and kills many of these formulations in the wild, however, I was more often drunk with delight. Here are a few examples of instances where I think the Post’s contempt is deserved:

  • “Needless to Say”— This is a phrase that announces its own irrelevance. Taken literally, the words are committing suicide. I look forward to the day when word processors are programmed to automatically delete it 
  • “Broken System” — Worth banning if only to shut Norm Ornstein up for awhile. Seriously, can we get a blanket prohibition on thumb-sucking opinion pieces that elide the distinction between “Washington doesn’t work” and “Washington doesn’t work the way I want it to”?
  • Much Ballyhooed” — I’m more forgiving that most of writing-specific diction. I’d never write a column the same way I’d write a speech. Different styles are appropriate for different media. There’s only so much elasticity permitted, however. “Ballyhoo” takes it too far. Never employ vocabulary that could plausibly have been originated by Dr. Seuss.
  • “Twitterati’ — Italian for “writers who are falling behind on their deadlines.”
  • “The Narrative” (unless referring to a style of writing) — First, it’s just an incredibly sterile phrase. More importantly, though, it’s gateway to a sort of meta-commentary. I never trusts journalists who talk about “the narrative” as if it’s set in stone. They have the power to change it. Give me the facts and I’ll make sense of them for myself.

As with all such exercises, a lot of these judgments are subjective. The Post flags “inflection point,” for example, which I regard as a phrase with no ready substitute, even if it’s a bit overused.

Likewise, I find the criticism of “begs the question” excessively pedantic. Yes, it has a specific meaning in a philosophical context, but the more common usage is so deeply embedded into the way we talk that it’s probably not worth resisting. Will the world really be that much better a place if everyone says “invites the question” instead?

How about you? What are some of your least favorite journalistic cliches? And are there items on Lozada’s list that you’d likewise defend from attack?

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  1. Sisyphus Member

    We cannot bewail “the Narrative” without pounding on “Messaging” as well. While these words can be of some use to propaganda mills organizing their forces, when they spill into the actual dialog it is as grating as when the politicians read their stage directions aloud during a speech. Such words serve as notice to the observer that the rhetoric has moved into a semantics-free discussion of rhetoric itself. A tacit admission that emissions of substance, if any, are now firmly concluded in favor of the purely vacuous.

    • #1
  2. Irene F. Starkehaus Inactive
    Irene F. Starkehaus

    …at the end of the day…(grin) we must write what we feel needs to be said in the manner that we believe makes the most impact and clichés be damned.

    • #2
  3. user_6236 Member

    Unexpectedly, the word/phrase “unexpectedly” did not appear in the Post’s list.  Because whenever anything negative happens to the preferred media narrative, it happens “unexpectedly.”

    • #3
  4. Proud Skeptic Inactive
    Proud Skeptic

    Overuse of the word “Deadly”.

    • #4
  5. user_989419 Inactive

    “Critics say…”

    As in, “Critics say that Republicans are opposed to the policy because they hate the environment.  And children.  And puppies.”

    Honest — it occurred to me before I checked the Post article.

    • #5
  6. user_240173 Member

    Probable Cause:

    “Critics say…”

    As in, “Critics say that Republicans are opposed to the policy because they hate the environment. And children. And puppies.”

    Honest — it occurred to me before I checked the Post article.

     That one is the absolute worst.  I hate it with every fiber of my being.

    • #6
  7. user_554634 Member

    “kick the can down the road.”  I’d like to kick whoever dreamed up this horror.
    “Threw him under the bus.” I wish they’d throw who ever came up with this under the bus.

    • #7
  8. Palaeologus Inactive

    I vote for “Byzantine rules” but you already knew that. (Unless you didn’t. How would I know what you know?)

    “Anything-gate” is also awful. It’s astoundingly, clumsily, awful. I’m no historian, does anyone know if every single stupid scandal from the 20’s through the 60’s was referred to as a “-Dome?” Was 19th century corruption constantly linked to the XYZ Affair?

    I thought it was a pretty good list, but Carlos, buddy, if you’re gonna compile a list of more than ten things, please organize it in some fashion.

    • #8
  9. EJHill Podcaster

    When it comes to journalism individual phrases don’t bother me. Operational clichés on the other hand…

    “Critics say,” or “some say” are not journalism. You’re stating opposition like a politician. If you think somebody opposes something, ask them. And then get them on the record. Otherwise it reads like Sir Humphrey’s rules for discretization. (Rule 2.5: Some of the main conclusions have been questioned. – If they haven’t, question them yourself; then they have.)

    The other operational cliché is “News you can use!” This is the rule that says that you don’t cover “X” because “X” is not relevant to the everyday life or the reader/viewer. Then, when “X” comes back to bite some poor soul in the butt down the road he’s told “Where have you been? This has been the law for years!”

    • #9
  10. Roberto Inactive

    “The Fourth Estate”

    The most insane sort of narcissism imaginable. I can easily see all the JournoList participants invoking this hagiography to themselves nightly.

    • #10
  11. EThompson Member

    “Media elites.” An oxymoron indeed.

    • #11
  12. Kim K. Inactive
    Kim K.

    You don’t like ballyhooed; I don’t like whopping. Any big increase or decrease described as whopping makes me think of Burger King.

    • #12
  13. user_2967 Inactive

    “And that’s the way it is.”  Spare me, Cronkite.

    • #13
  14. Franz Drumlin Inactive
    Franz Drumlin

    This one is aimed at conservative opinion mongers: the ever-popular ‘cocktail party.’ Apparently there are dozens of ‘cocktail parties’ taking place every night in ‘Washington’ or ‘Georgetown’ or ‘Manhattan’ where progressive government/media types in navy blue blazers drink brandy alexanders and munch on canapés while talking up the party line.

    • #14
  15. user_891102 Member

    “Devolve.”  This is a peculiar one, as cliches go.

    At least when *I* was exposed to the word in my SAT word-list days in high school, the principal definition of “devolve” was connected to the transfer or conveyance of rights, responsibilities, title to something– for instance, “Law enforcement duties devolved upon the duly designated senior deputy in the event of the sheriff’s being incapacitated,” or “The will stipulates the uncle’s ownership of the local Kreplach Kastle devolving to his sister’s son and daughter in equal shares upon his demise.”

    A quick gander at a couple of online dictionaries tends to bring up about 3 distinguishable definitions for any given “devolve” entry, with this above meaning usually occupying the first spot.

    Now, there *is* (again, in this random sampling of various online-dictionary entries) a definition, typically assigned the third spot, that has “devolve” presenting images and scenarios of situational and/or attribute degeneration, atrophy, and the like.

    However, this *third*-spot definition has usurped the *first* spot in wide journalistic usage — wide to the point of cliche.

    It strikes me as a cliche born of laziness, with a dash of vocabulary one-upmanship born of preening.

    • #15
  16. profdlp Inactive

    The word “Outrage”, as in “Outrage over criticism of cute kittens.”

    What ever happened to just not liking something?

    • #16
  17. user_517406 Inactive

    To beg the question is to assume the thing that the argument is over. It’s a useful term that I’m sorry to see redefined.

    • #17
  18. Blondie Thatcher

    My husband can’t stand “that being said”. He cringes when he hears it.

    • #18
  19. user_358258 Inactive

    “Boots on the ground” really sets me off.

    • #19
  20. Rightfromthestart Coolidge

    Controversial – which translates to , the press doesn’t like it. If 90% on the people feel one way but the press disagrees the issue remains ‘ controversial’ until  the press gets it way . When a single poll shows a 50.1% majority their way the issue is settled , old news! which only trolls disagree with.

    • #20
  21. Stad Coolidge

    I’m sick of “the wrong side of history” myself.

    • #21
  22. user_443795 Inactive

    Personally, I shall never forgive the ignorant and illiterate (most of them in the media) for raping “begs the question” of its correct meaning.  Let them say “raises the question” rather than force me to say “petitio principii” and get a lot of blank stares.

    Fallacies of argumentation should not be dismissed as “philosophical”…especially since these same linguistic vandals are among those most guilty of them

    • #22
  23. user_1830 Coolidge

    “Watchdog.” Society needs vigilant institutions and organizations to be sure. The watchdog moniker could safely be put to sleep, however. Media in my area attach this word to the so-called good government groups (goo-goos) that wait at the ready with comment each time a campaign finance ruling appears or a politician accepts a donation from a constituent. Tiring.

    • #23
  24. Songwriter Inactive


    The word “Outrage”, as in “Outrage over criticism of cute kittens.”

    What ever happened to just not liking something?

     This is part and parcel with the Hyperbolization of NewsSpeak.  Similarly, nothing ever “affects” anything any  more.  Rather, it always “impacts” something.  As a result, all news today is “breaking news.”

    • #24
  25. user_423975 Coolidge

    Frank Soto:

    Probable Cause:

    “Critics say…”

    As in, “Critics say that Republicans are opposed to the policy because they hate the environment. And children. And puppies.”

    Honest — it occurred to me before I checked the Post article.

    That one is the absolute worst. I hate it with every fiber of my being.

     That is a subset of a more general case or akin to “Some people are saying” which usually means “me and/or my friends are saying” which is a cheap way of trying to make the argument more important than it really is or sneaking opinion into a “news” piece.  Its also similar to a tv reporter interviewing a “man on the street” which could be not the first person they found just the first person they found who is saying the things the reporter wants.

    • #25
  26. user_158368 Inactive

    Irene F. Starkehaus:

    …at the end of the day…(grin) we must write what we feel needs to be said in the manner that we believe makes the most impact and clichés be damned.

     …we must write what we feel needs to be said in the manner that we believe is the most impactful

    Fixed it for ya.  

    • #26
  27. mm Inactive

    “the science is settled”-i.e. I don’t understand the technical issues myself and therefore will rely on blind faith/ideological bias and don’t want to have to confront anyone else’s ideas/argument-since I could not possibly rebut them.

    • #27
  28. The Cynthonian Member
    The Cynthonian

    “Critics say” as a device for introducing lazy, unattributed counter-arguments to what then becomes an opinion piece deserves the Hall of Shame.

    I see this more in feature writing, but another one I despise is “he (or she) found himself in….” [location or circumstances].  The writer is too lazy to summarize how the person came to be in that location or circumstances.   Sets my teeth on edge.

    • #28
  29. phlyarologist Inactive

    “Questions remain”

    • #29
  30. Rachel Lu Member
    Rachel Lu

    Oh dear. I don’t agree with a single one of Troy’s recommendations for the strike list. Sounding like Dr Seuss is a bad thing? If more journalists were capable of writing like Dr Seuss, our nation would be better informed, and reading the morning news would be way more enjoyable.

    But I most strenuously object to the exclusion of “narrative”. This is a very important word and a very important concept. People sometimes try to convict it of squishiness but that’s just  a conceit. To say you “just want the facts” may sound all journalistic and cool but it’s really just silly, in the first place because facts are infinite and selection is always required, but far more importantly, because characterizing a particular person or group’s “narrative” is itself a way of describing the world, and sometimes a very helpful way. People understand their lives, politics, the world, etc in “narratives”. How can we change them if we’re not supposed to talk about them? If you want to give someone a new “narrative” you might want to talk about what “narrative” they’re working with right now, and what better “narrative” you could use to replace it. It’s just possible that the word “narrative” might come up in that conversation.

    • #30
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