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. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    I’m trying to think of a journalistic word or phrase that I hate, but not coming with much. I don’t think I’m uncritical of writing in general, but I guess I just think that it’s silly to blame the words when you should be blaming people for the particular way they use them. Almost every word or phrase can become fresh or usefully descriptive with the right context or usage.

    • #31
  2. George Savage Contributor
    George Savage
    @GeorgeSavage

    Just as an exercise, how about a competition for the most cringeworthy opening graf for a column or news story?  Think of this as the journalistic equivalent of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

    My own entry:

    Who Lost the Tea Party?
    Pundits say as a society the American people, since time immemorial, have preferred doubling-down on ersatz game-changing politicians of the hope-and-change variety despite being offered little more than political theater by partisans of both sides.   For all intents and purposes it appeared this narrative was fixed until the arrival on the scene of the Tea Party: a hastily convened, much ballyhooed, officially leaderless network of grass roots activists promising to fix a broken system.   But the devil is in the details.  At the end of the day, a decentralized group, its hierarchy shrouded in secrecy, is no silver bullet against the power of Official Washington.  Despite the fevered speculation of a Tea Party takeover after the Republican landslide of 2010–with Rand Paul, son of Ron, having his Mr. Paul goes to Washington moment–the movement faced a stinging rebuke in 2012 at the hands of a resurgent Internal Revenue Service.  Who knew that the IRS could pick sides, becoming the poster child for Hope and Change?  Behold the power of this fully operational political and financial police force!

    • #32
  3. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Edwin Newman wrote about the time, as a young reporter, he was assigned to cover a hockey game. There were no goals scored. Newman went back, wrote his story, and walked it over to his editor. Without looking up, the editor raised his hand to stop Newman from going any further. 

    “Did they ‘struggle to a scoreless tie?’ ”

    Newman looked at his lead sentence. That was indeed exactly how he has described the game. Without a word, Newman returned to his desk and rewrote the story.

    • #33
  4. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    Randy Webster:

    “Boots on the ground” really sets me off.

     I object to any mention of “on the ground.” For example, “the reality on the ground” is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

    • #34
  5. user_648492 Coolidge
    user_648492
    @MichaelBrehm

    I’ve always loathed, from the depths of my spleen, the phrase “We are all _____  now.”  I hate the presumption of consensus, and the way the users of this phrase seem to use it in an attempt to co-opt another’s tragedy.

    • #35
  6. Joe Escalante Contributor
    Joe Escalante
    @JoeEscalante

    The one I got tired of when I was 7 is “The answer may surprise you.”

    • #36
  7. user_358258 Member
    user_358258
    @RandyWebster

    I always thought 42 was the answer that would surprise you.

    • #37
  8. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    Randy Webster:

    I always thought 42 was the answer that would surprise you.

    It depends on the question.

    • #38
  9. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    It doesn’t qualify as a cliché, perhaps, but Randy Webster has inspired me to comment on the term I have despised forever — “casualties” — as if there is anything remotely casual about the death of a soldier. Perhaps one of the members who has served in the military can explain the origin of this noxious word.

    • #39
  10. Koblog Inactive
    Koblog
    @Koblog

    “Plunged.” There has to be another word for going off a cliff.

    And what’s with “I look forward to the day when word processors are programmed to automatically delete it ”

    Does splitting the infinitive no longer matter?

    • #40
  11. user_358258 Member
    user_358258
    @RandyWebster

    How many roads would a man walk down?

    • #41
  12. user_358258 Member
    user_358258
    @RandyWebster

    For the uninitiated, Sal and I are just screwing around with “A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.”

    • #42
  13. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    Stad:

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

     Amen. I hate that. History doesn’t have sides, issues do. 

    • #43
  14. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    Songwriter:

    profdlp:

    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.”

     I recently saw the word “impacts” as a plural noun! 

    • #44
  15. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    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.

     As a history major I was warned against passive language. Language like the latter example here makes literal sense only if the person was kidnapped. 

    • #45
  16. user_521942 Member
    user_521942
    @ChrisWilliamson

    Speaking of “narrative”, I’m reading “[Brief]: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less.” The author writes a summary for each chapter — his way of being brief — starting each summary with the words “Long story, short.” Here’s what he wrote for his chapter on telling stories, or “narratives”:

    Long story, short. People are buried in corporate-speak, but you can help them by embracing narrative storytelling to be clear, concise, and compelling.
    • #46
  17. user_424704 Member
    user_424704
    @DouglasLeBlanc

    Alleged (when misplaced or used reflexively)
    Controversial
    Fundamentalist
    Going forward
    Reached out (as in “We reached out to Mr. Snopes for comment”)
    So-called (followed by sneer quotes)
    Ultra anything

    • #47
  18. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    I will never forget my first encounter with an editor’s blue pencil. “Rich people RESIDE, the rest of us live at.”

    • #48
  19. user_1029039 Inactive
    user_1029039
    @JasonRudert

    EThompson:

    It doesn’t qualify as a cliché, perhaps, but Randy Webster has inspired me to comment on the term I have despised forever – “casualties” – as if there is anything remotely casual about the death of a soldier. Perhaps one of the members who has served in the military can explain the origin of this noxious word.

    It covers, in one word, those missing, wounded or killed. The etymology is related to words like chance or accident. 

    • #49
  20. user_282200 Inactive
    user_282200
    @HenryScanlon

    “Decimate”, when used incorrectly to mean “devastate” or “destroy” or “lay waste to”.  As the root word would imply, it means to reduce by ten percent.  The shame of it is that the word is actually interesting and nuanced, referring as it does to the Roman punishment imposed on Roman Legions for cowardice or desertion.  Ten percent of the group was selected to receive the punishment– and here’s the interesting part– their own comrades were forced to be the ones to do the killing.  The shame of it is that used properly the word is freighted with implication.  Unfortunately, “used properly” almost never happens…

    • #50
  21. Fredösphere Inactive
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    I hate the weird habit that turned up maybe 2-3 years ago of beginning the pentultimate paragraph with “to be sure” followed by whatever caveats the author felt obliged to include before returning to the thesis in the final paragraph.

    To be sure, including other points of view guarantees a modicum of fairness. Perfect originality is an unobtainable goal, and sometimes a writer on a deadline must turn to familiar templates to get the copy finished.

    Nevertheless, it’s anoying. I wonder if anyone still does that.

    • #51
  22. Boots on the Table Member
    Boots on the Table
    @BootsontheTable

    mm:

    “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.

     Especially, since, by its very nature, science is never settled.

    • #52
  23. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Salvatore Padula:

    Randy Webster:

    “Boots on the ground” really sets me off.

    I object to any mention of “on the ground.” For example, “the reality on the ground” is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

     Yea, like where  the hell else would the be.

    • #53
  24. TeeGee Inactive
    TeeGee
    @TeeGee

    Beleaguered. I think most people described as beleaguered as beleaguered principally by the media.

    • #54
  25. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Science is settled, debate is over, the debate is now tiresome, etc., all of these are attempts to win the argument without bothering to fight. Instead of advancing arguments, it’s trying to declare victory without competing. Using these rhetorical distractions is instead a sign that you can’t fight with reasons, so you do what the lawyers call “pound the table.”

    • #55
  26. Thursby Member
    Thursby
    @Thursby

    Thanks for giving me the chance to chronicle these cliches as a self-styled media critic.

    • #56
  27. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Jim Chase:

    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.”

     Or when it happens to a Democratic administration. But I repeat ourself.

    • #57
  28. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Songwriter:

    profdlp:

    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.”

     If it wasn’t breaking, it wouldn’t meet the “new” portion of “news”.

    • #58
  29. Metalheaddoc Member
    Metalheaddoc
    @Metalheaddoc

    I’m so sick of “double down”.

    • #59
  30. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    “a [insert city name] man…”

    • #60
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