Why don’t we write English?

Volume 33, Number 2, June 2022

It is time journalists stopped reaching for euphemisms and recognised that bad things happen in news stories

Kicked the bucket. Fallen off the perch. Croaked. Just a few of around 300 words and phrases that make up the vernacular of death, according to Urns Northwest, vendors of high-quality cremation-ash containers in Oregon, US. But heaven help UK journalism if new entrants to our trade find out about this source of euphemisms. Because in 21st century journalism it is rare to read that someone has died.

Far too many journalists appear unable to write about someone’s demise without prefacing this self-evidently sorrowful news with “sadly”. And it doesn’t stop there because it seems the dearly departed frequently have not, in fact, died at all. They have “sadly passed away”, “sadly passed on”, “sadly passed over”, or “sadly lost their life”.

If young reporters learn about the bulging lexicon of loss which Urns Northwest has thoughtfully provided, who knows what we might read in the next report of a fatality? Will we learn that the unfortunate individual “…is getting bagged…”, “…is drowning in worms…”? Well, probably not, actually. A journalist using that sort of language will not win any digital friends. Yet it is precisely these digital friends who exemplify a broader problem in journalism: namely attempts, overt and covert, to capture the language of our industry.

The threat is coming both from inside the newsroom and from outside, and it should be resisted, but the problem is that there are fewer on the front line of the trade who are able to do so, either through lack of age or lack of experience. Academics can provide data on the demographic changes in newsrooms, but for now, conversations with working journalists and observation of external pressures reveal as much as we need to know.

Inside the newsroom, there is relentless pressure to produce audience-friendly copy – with language to match – that will generate clicks, the crucial currency of the commercial equation that persuades advertisers to pay for digital space. But such is the sensitivity of this issue across the industry that journalists I spoke to cannot be identified – even by general job title, the company they work for or their pronouns – because mortgages and children’s shoes might be at stake. But those willing to speak on such terms paint a picture of newsroom life that should worry anyone who cares about journalism.

One sub-editor knocks out “sadly” when it appears before “died” in copy. One reason it gets put in, they think, is that reporters believe including emotion in hard news reflects what audiences will feel as they read human-interest stories. They add: “Hard news doesn’t sell as well – think page views – without emotion, which I think is becoming more embedded in the modern journalist’s subconscious.” This staffer has not formed a firm view about whether the phenomenon is being driven by pressure from management but what no one can dispute is the importance of getting readers to keep on moving through stories in the online product. Because this translates into those all-important “clicks” or “page views” which mean that companies will pay to advertise, and that brings in the money that pays the wages: “Ultimately, emotion is what wins people over – whether that’s on a positive story about cute puppies, or family heartbreak at losing someone in a car crash.”

Another experienced reporter working for an established publisher was more blunt about the impact of “warm words” or “soft” stories on the news industry’s direction of travel: “We’re being run by people who want us to get hits – in other words, clicks, page views, digital eyeballs and the rest – regardless of what we are writing. They don’t care about the content. Click-driven journalism is like junk food – it fills you up at the time but it’s bad for you in the long term. If we keep on the trajectory we are on, we are going to lose journalism that matters.”

An editorial decision-maker on another title that is firmly located in both digital and dead tree journalism fears that young reporters suffer in development of their use of language because remote working means there is little or no mentoring. In the past, an experienced colleague would reassure trainees that their unflinching account of some calamity was just fine. Today, when a young non-office-based journalist working from home is facing a social media pile on because someone doesn’t like the tone of their story, there is no one close to hand who can stiffen their resolve. This journalist notes: “It makes me wonder if the outlook of younger journalists is being influenced by the ‘be kind’ consciousness which seems to have gained prominence during the Covid pandemic.

“New entrants to the industry are in no doubt that what matters in relation to a story they have written is getting it shared as much as possible online. While they do this, they walk a tightrope: a story about someone who has crashed and died in a stolen car after a police chase may be known to some in the community as a thoroughly bad lot – but at the same time they are saints to their nearest and dearest. When the audience has a direct line to a young reporter through social media, they can feel extremely vulnerable when criticism from either side starts dropping into their feeds.”

A considered view, but that line is there again: getting a story shared as much as possible online – clicks and hits and page views – is the name of the game. If empathetic language is what makes it happen, what journalist is going to choose the harder option and the better story? This pressure on reporters to get page views looks set to increase. In March, the industry news website Hold The Front Page reported that one of the biggest news industry publishers, Reach PLC, was proposing to introduce new page-view targets for journalists over the course of 2022. It said some staff would be required to achieve up to 850,000 page views per month under the proposals.

Buried in helpful guides

All this would be bad enough if downward forces on language were restricted to the newsroom, but it’s worse than that. From outside the newsroom, pressure about the use of language comes from lobby groups bearing helpful “guides” on the words that they believe journalists should use. In February this year, the Society of Editors drew members’ attention to the offer of “free newsroom training on how to report fatal domestic abuse” from Level Up, a UK-based group which describes itself as a feminist organisation that aims to “interrupt all forms of gender injustice”. Available for download is a 19-page detailed document, Dignity For Dead Women – Media guidelines for reporting domestic violence deaths. In 2021, there was the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines from the Active Travel Academy, which is established in the University of Westminster. Its 11-page guide tells journalists what words to use and not use when reporting fatal road incidents. This publication was mentioned in a Forbes online story, “It’s Crash Not Accident: Road Collision Reporting Guidelines Issued”, which began: “Journalists reporting on road collisions can now check with a new set of media guidelines drawn up by legal, policing and safety experts.” Well, pardon me, but I got through 20-plus years of reporting, and I managed fine without such guides. Meanwhile, there are also media guides for reporting mental health issues from Mind and another guide is available from the Samaritans on reporting suicide. In addition, from the John Rowntree Foundation, there is the 24-page Reporting poverty: a guide for media professionals. And so it goes on. Search Google with the phrase “Guidelines for reporting xxxxx” and there seems to be no shortage of organisations waiting to tell journalists what they should and should not say.

Surely it has to stop – we have to politely decline. How will journalists get anything into publication if their homework has to be checked against the demands of myriad interest groups? Those page views have got to be generated fast. But there’s the rub: telling journalists what language to use is where the road forks. Advocacy groups providing reliable and verified information about issues that matter to society – housing, poverty, money, whatever – is one thing, and a good thing. But the problem with “helpful guidance” about reporting this, that or the other subject area is that the more there is, and the more fine-grained it is, the greater the risk of it tipping over into attempted control of the language of journalism.

This type of activity is well-documented. A recent example is the launch of the TV channel GB News, which saw a concerted campaign aimed at deterring companies from advertising with the broadcaster before it even reached air, on the basis of what was believed to be the planned content. In print, The Spectator found itself in the cross-hairs over some of its content, with advertisers being encouraged to pull out.

The inconvenient truth – for the company bosses and the campaign groups and anyone else taking issue with the wording of stories – is that journalists don’t need any education about the use of language. Other than, perhaps, encouragement to push back against forces trying to subvert it. To guide us we have the industry regulators, Ipso – the Independent Press Standards Organisation – and its broadcast equivalent, Ofcom. Clause 12 of the Editors’ Code, enforced by Ipso, concerns discrimination, and cautions against “prejudicial or pejorative references” to people, while the NUJ code clause 9 cautions members about “material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination”. It has me wondering: if I write about how I hate retired people blocking the post office queue at peak times, despite having all day to visit, would I be in breach of the NUJ code, if I was a member? Would I get a jab of Ipso’s regulatory cattle prod?

It’s time for journalism and journalists to wake up before it’s too late. Journalism is the act of bearing witness, holding a mirror up to society and saying: “Here, this is what you look like. Do not blame us for what you see.” Journalism is not a problem which needs to be fixed through intervention by every special interest and lobby group on the block.

This is not a call for some crusade against “political correctness”. What is needed now is a concerted effort by the industry to use plain language, accurate language, appropriate language. Language that no one will have any difficulty standing behind. It is true, however, that PC needs some PR. Someone needs to tell it to rebrand itself as what, for the most part, is common courtesy in dealing with people. In fact, it’s obvious that what is needed is another guide!

Perhaps journalists should work together to produce a one-stop citizens’ manual, How To Write And Speak Plainly, and send a copy to each of the organisations offering help to us by way of returning the favour. Because such is the nature of journalism that there’s always a risk we offend someone. Our industry should use demotic language, the plain language of ordinary people.

But it is not just journalism that has been corrupted by the modern phenomenon of shying away from plain speaking. Even the good folk at Urns Northwest in America avoid using “death” anywhere in the cheery “About Us” page of their website. Their customer feedback is equally shy, with references to “when someone’s time came”, and “this difficult time”, and so on. But there’s a little bit of unwitting humour courtesy of another satisfied customer, who writes that their Urns Northwest cremation-ash container is “just what I wanted”. Laugh? I nearly passed away.

Kevin Duffy

Kevin Duffy is a former newspaper and TV journalist who teaches applied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire.

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