‘Why I believe everyone should learn journalese’

Muffled words: reporters surrounding their prey are known as ‘the huddle’ © Getty Images

Once you understand it, the cliched language used by reporters in British newspapers clearly becomes a way to see the world as the media want you to: but it’s fun, too.

Fancy putting a second language down on your CV, but struggling with French? Why not try something a little easier: journalese. You probably understand a lot of it already, because you see it everyday: it’s the language of newspapers.

Journalese is a lot like English. Indeed at first glance, you might think news reports are written in English. But they’re not, or not quite. For instance, if a teacher told you off, you wouldn’t describe their words as a ‘slap down’ or a ‘stinging rebuke’. You probably don’t have ‘crisis talks’ with your parents about the state of your bedroom. And however much you might like that new track by a singer who used to be a favourite, you’d be unlikely to describe it as a ‘richly textured return to form.’

Newspapers use journalese because it carries meaning quickly, and makes stories sound exciting. But you should learn to decode it because they also use it to carry hidden meanings. Often they’re trying to make you see things from their point of view without letting you know that’s what they’re up to. Sometimes they’re covering up gaps in their own understanding of events. And occasionally they want to tell the reader something specific, but can’t because they’re afraid of being taken to court.

My new book* is designed to help readers decode the news by spotting what a reporter really means when they use these favourite well-worn phrases.

Budding – someone under 20 who’s good at something.

By Our Foreign Staff – a little newspaper joke. Of course we don’t have a foreign staff any more. We can barely cover Kent. We lifted this from the newswires.

Close-knit community – the kind to be avoided at all costs when choosing where to live, as they’re always the ones where ‘tragedy strikes’.

Considering – for use in the all-purpose unfalsifiable policy story. No one will ever be able to convincingly deny that they’ve ‘considered’ something. If the thing they’re considering might actually happen, try ‘actively considering’, to distinguish it from the sort of passive consideration people give things before rejecting them out of hand.

Controversial – we like to quote him, but everyone else thinks he’s bonkers.

Flunkey – technical term for a royal aide.

Fragile – (of a celebrity) thin, pale or recently dumped.

Funnelling money – giving it to someone of whom we disapprove.

Just minutes away – the distance between two places. The minutes in question can be up to 60, and the mode of transport a fast car on an empty road.

Meltdown – an upset star started shouting at people.

Mystery surrounds – in time, it may deepen. Right now, we don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Rising – what crime is always doing. The job of Home Affairs correspondents at crime stats briefings is to find a number that has gone up, or failing that to force a statistician to concede that there is a number that may go up in the future.

Special Investigation – a normal investigation, but with a picture byline for the reporter.

Up to – used with figures to mean ‘look, there’s a whole range of numbers we could report, but we’re not going to waste your time. This is the very worst one we could come up with. Or try ‘as much as’ or ‘as little as’.

* Romps, Tots and Boffins – The Strange Language of News by Robert Hutton is published by Elliott & Thompson in 2013, £9.99

You Decide

  1. Does journalese help readers understand different layers of meaning behind a news report, or obscure what is really going on?


  1. Can you write a short news story of your own using some of the journalese phrases Robert explains here?

Word Watch

Taken to court
If you write and publish something about a living person that they believe is wrong and damages their reputation, they can sue you under the UK’s libel laws. Libel trials get very expensive, and if the person suing can be proved to have no reputation worth damaging, they lose the case, so they also get very nasty.
Services like the Press Association and Reuters report on thousands of news stories every week and send them to news organisations that subscribe to their service so that they can keep abreast of every development. Sometimes newspapers and websites will use this so-called ‘agency copy’.

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