Journalese: Glossary of Meaningless Terms

I’m a having a problem with the term “fake news.” If a report isn’t true, it’s not news but fiction. I’m sure that our cherished free press churns out a considerable volume of fiction, but let’s not call it news. I suggest we use the term journalists themselves like so much: “narrative.” A narrative doesn’t have to be true, and when a journalist uses that term, he absolves himself of any responsibility to tell you whether it is true or not. 

“Narrative” is a good example of a new language today’s news-mongers employ. Journalese is a composite of shorthand, metaphor, fad, abbreviation, stereotype, superlative and like substitutes for factual, literal words, phrases and sentences.  Some words, like “narrative,” are used to weaken whatever the report is meant to document. A reporter can save a bit of time and effort by using this term in place of “fact,” which might require some research and cross-checking.

I’ve been collecting bits and pieces of journalese, and I think I have a sufficient supply to declare that the new language renders most of what we get from newsmen altogether meaningless. The predominant trend has been a movement away from language with precise meanings to language that is ambiguous or amorphous, often consisting of new coinages for which you are left to supply your own meanings.

Take “red” and “blue,” for instance. One or another TV network in one or another national election color-coded the 50 states so that those whose electoral vote went to the Republican candidate were marked red and those that favored the Democratic candidate were marked blue. Before long, all reporters were referring to red states and blue states, as if this were a means of categorizing voter preferences or public opinion. In fact, the color coding tells us very little about a state. It’s far less descriptive than “sparsely populated” or “urban” or “agricultural” or “economically depressed” or even “former confederacy.” The implication of red and blue designation is that it tells us how people will vote in the next election. Except that it doesn’t. It’s a much used substitute for discussion of issues of public policy, demographics, geography, and history, and it gives a shapeless and indistinct picture of politics that is so far from a factual rendering as to be falsehood. The only good thing you can say about the imagined red-blue dichotomy is that it relieves the reporter of any obligation to find out what actually goes on in various states. News-consumers must be satisfied with a snapshot of which party got the electoral vote in the last presidential election.

“Midterm” is another phrase that moves us in the direction of imprecision and saves the reporter some work. We used to refer to congressional elections, but that phrase has become inoperative. “Midterm,” which once signified tests high-school kids take halfway through a marking period, now refers  to an election halfway through the presidential term, as if the presidential election were somehow elevated in status above an election of legislators. The problem with calling it a congressional election is that you might have to say something about the matters at issue, and that involves journalistic work, something journalists can dispense with when it’s merely a “midterm” election. And journalists like the wholly inapposite imagery of a midterm test, suggesting that the congressional election is a test the president must pass. Looking back on this latest election, we can see that the focus of the media was not what the new congress might do but how the election reflects on the popularity of Donald Trump. There’s nothing factual about this sort of shorthand coverage, but it’s cheap and easy for reporters, so we’ll have to learn to like it.

The inappropriate imagery of “midterm” is typical of much of the metaphor journalists like so much. You’ll find reports of people “connecting the dots” and “leveling the playing field” and “walking back” statements and “drinking the Kool Aid” and “weighing in” and sometimes doing several of those things in the same sentence. News-consumers might see these as picturesque turns-of-phrase if they weren’t altogether trite and largely devoid of meaning. The good thing about “connecting the dots” is that the reporter can leave it to the reader to figure out what the facts actually are and how they fit together. Connecting the dots allows the reporter to imply that the mystery is solved witihout actually solving it. Did the crown prince of Saudi Arabia have a writer assassinated? Connect the dots, and decide for yourself. Don’t expect the reporter to expend any effort finding out whether a head of state did or didn’t commit murder.

Abuse of metaphor is endemic in news reporting. The theory seems to be that imagery is always better than no imagery, because news-consumers are fatuous morons who don’t really care to know what’s happening but crave familiar, pictorial-seeming phrases. Metaphors are mood-enhancers. If somebody weighs in with an opinion, you can comfortably enjoy a mood of satisfaction at having heard it. You’re meant to experience gravitas. And what does “gravitas” mean?  From a factual standpoint, it means nothing. It’s one guy’s opinion of another guy’s opinion. Weight could be in play, but beyond that, connect the dots.

“Play” figures prominently in journalese. It’s not just the playing field. Events are always playing out. Factors are in play or at play. The reporter doesn’t tell us whether he’s talking about a game or a drama of some kind or a musical performance, but there are players, and they are playing. Could be poker or could be football. If you get the impression that the reporter is playing you, you may be onto something.

Speakers of journalese have a “take” on everything. A take can be an impression. It can be an interpretation. It can be an appraisal of merit or quality. Like so much of journalese, the word–and even the concept of a “take”– is so imprecise that it carries no meaning, very convenient for reporters lacking facts.

The art of imprecision can be taken to extreme lengths. It’s permissible in journalese to say on December 3 about an event that happened four days ago that it happened last month. You can say that a person has “ties” to the Kremlin if he’s a soldier in the Russian army. You can safely say that a guy is “mob-connected” if he’s Italian and has a criminal record. Approximations like these typically stand alone, with no supporting facts, leaving you free to supply your own stereotypes, fictions, rumor and gossip.

Journalese, if used properly, should make the news-consumer feel like a witness to history, and so it’s peppered with superlatives. “Legendary” and “iconic” are routinely used to describe people and events that are neither legendary nor iconic. Things that can be characterized as the first of their kind might include the election of a Wiccan to public office or the deadliest mass shooting this calendar year. Speakers of journalese never pass up an opportunity to point out an extreme. You might not think a weather event could be “on steroids,” but storms of that character turn out to be common, and you never know when you’re going to run across something that’s “writ large.” Some superlatives are so inappropriate as to be silly. “That’s some incredible reporting, Jim!” is meant as a compliment coming from a speaker of journalese, when it actually expresses grave doubts about Jim’s honesty and credibility. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that when a reporter says that something is legendary or iconic or on steroids, he’s not making a statement of fact and he’s not giving you useful or coherent information. His meaning is whatever you choose it to be.

Fads are common in journalese. A word like “robust” might be used incessantly for a period of months or years and then fade in popularity, to be replaced by “stunning,” for instance. Some fad usage practices are meant to be cryptic. Why would a writer use “agency” to describe free will or “take-away” to refer  to a lesson learned? Would a writer of news intentionally cloud meaning by choosing an ill-defined metaphorical term over a specific factual reference? Maybe not, but using the term “agency” for anything other than actual agency is an act of obfuscation. Try to figure out what’s meant by “granularity” or “rent-seeking” or “block chain” next time you see one of those elusive, all but meaningless terms.

Some terms are tortured almost to death. “Existential” is a made-up coinage first used in French to describe a 20th century philosophical movement that had more to do with personal conduct than with existence. Reporters now use it to describe a species of danger. The risk that something might cease to be is now an existential threat. The very abstract meaning advanced by the coiner of the term is extinct now. And when you say “existential threat,” you’ve said enough. It’s jargon that’s used as shorthand in place of facts about the precise character of the threat.

The shortest of all shorthand phrases–and one of the least meaningful–is “LGBTQ.” It’s a totally artificial grouping of individuals whose only shared characteristic is indulgence in certain unspecified sexual practices. It seems likely that a significant proportion of news-consumers who hear the term “eljeebeeteecue” couldn’t tell you what the letters stand for, much less what members of this category do for fun. Grouping them all as one class lets us supply our own stereotypes. I use “LGBTQ” every so often to denote a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with a slice of gherkin, cut in quarters.

Are there consequences when words and phrases lose their literal meanings? Should we be concerned that “gay” no longer means “joyful?” That hawks and doves have stopped being birds? Should we regret that “shooting in the foot” is uttered so often now by reporters that the phrase no longer refers to an intentional act of cowardice by a soldier to avoid combat but, rather, any blunder. What was a very precise metaphor for a very specific type of misconduct has become a general reference to a foolish error.  Is our language improved or degraded by such changes of meaning? Don’t look for an answer among news-mongers. Speakers of journalese live to alter language. There is no good reason to say somebody “gifted” something when he actually gave it, but in journalese the verbed noun is a thing of beauty. Intentional mispronunciations abound in journalese. “Nuke-ya-ler”  and “her-ass” seem to be the accepted versions of words that used to demonstrate connections to their ancestral roots. Much meaning can be sacrificed by such rhetorical tactics.

Some journalese is transparently manipulative. “Oligarch” is a word you hear often. It usually refers to a rich businessman in Russia, but that’s not what oligarchs really are. Oligarchs rule, and they rule jointly. Russian businessmen may exert undue influence but they rule nobody, and the use of the term to describe them is a slur and is meant to make you dislike them and their fellow Russians. “Black Friday” is another term of manipulation. It’s journalese code for “Go Shopping!” There is actually no reason for you to shop on the day after Thanksgiving, but the sponsors of the news–advertisers–depend on you to spend money, and any additional impetus that news editors can furnish is welcome. It’s funny that the “black” in “black Friday” refers to the color of the ink on the retailer’s ledger which goes from red to black when the news media decree that the shopping season has begun (as if shoppers should actually care whether retailers are making a profit). Black Friday used to be the day in 1929 when the stock market crashed, but that historical artifact can be conveniently abandoned now.

The destruction of meaning is not an exclusively reactionary or commercial enterprise. Among leftish reporters, the nearly meaningless words “commodification” and “intersectionality” have gained widespread currency. Don’t attempt to derive meaning from the components of these words. The first mentioned one has nothing to do with modification, nor does the second denote anything resembling an intersection. In fact, they are recent coinages with no set meaning. “Commodification” is meant to suggest commodities, in the sense of goods offered for sale, and seems to refer to the corruption for profit of social institutions like education and family. The term is so imprecise that the most you can derive from it is a general impression of crassness. “Intersectionality” refers vaguely to the aggregate adverse effects of various social forces as they combine with individual disadvantages. It seems to be a shorthand term in journalese for some sort of invidious conduct, but I have found it impossible when confronted with the term to pin any facts down with precision. Consulting the dictionary definition of the word was not helpful.  This sort of terminology is meant to create an impression or elicit a mood, but it is never meant to convey meaning.

My favorite journalese terms are “sorta” and “kinda.” These terms are a refuge for the ignorant. Things that can’t reliably be said to be what they are can be conveniently described as “sorta” what they are. It’s safe to say Putin is sorta autocratic and Trump is kinda moody, because sorta moody can be just about any degree of moody from hardly moody at all to moody as a bored sixth-grader. The imprecision that kinda-sorta affords is a priceless gift to a reporter who has no reliably true facts to report. Kids who use “like” three times in every sentence graduate to “sorta” after college. So far, kinda and sorta haven’t found their way into print, but the weakness of expression that these terms bring to any sentence is a mainstay of journalese usage, and news writers have discovered any number of similar rhetorical tactics to avoid unqualified statements of fact.

The best practice for news-consumers confronted with journalese is to probe for meaning. What’s a “think tank?” How many are included in “a growing number.”  Is a “wonk” a smart person or an idiot? How does a “divisive” issue differ from any other issue? If an event was “surprising,” who exactly was surprised? Who is able to discern the message of a “dog whistle?” Should we recall high-school physics when we hear “optics” or high-school math when we are warned about the “graphic” character of a picture or description? Do these terms retain some literal meaning? Do they have any meaning whatsoever? Are they really intended to obscure meaning? Are speakers of journalese enemies of meaning and destroyers of language? If you ever get a straight answer to any of these questions from these folks, give me a holler.