It would be interesting if the standards of Truth in Advertising were applied to television news as they sometimes are to television commercials. In that unlikely situation, TV news writers would be required to use phrases and words that convey accurate information – as opposed to the phrases and words they use today.
I want to help you break the code of alarming newspeak so that you can more easily find the valuable information that may (or may not) be part of a story.
Given the disturbing reasons we’ve all been watching so much TV news, it would be understandable to overlook the sheer ridiculousness that is inherent in some of the sensationalism. Occasionally, the way TV news is delivered can be downright funny, and indeed, the ability to laugh at something indicates that we are beginning to gain perspective on it. Accordingly, some of what follows is funny, and I have a very clear purpose in offering it: I want to help change your experience of television news, help you actually watch it differently. I want to provide some tools you can use to ensure that when you watch TV news, only actual information gets through.
Though not offered as a comprehensive glossary, here are some examples of words and phrases I think you’ll quickly recognize:
POSSIBLE: As in “Next Up: Possible links between Saddam Hussein and tooth decay…”
The word “possible” doesn’t really have the specificity one hopes for in journalism, given that it is completely accurate when applied to anything anyone can possibly imagine. “A possible outbreak of…” means there has been no outbreak. “A possible connection between memory loss and the air you breathe…” means there is no confirmed connection.
“Officials are worried about possible attacks against…” means there have been no such attacks.
Anytime you hear the word possible, it’s probably not happening right now.
“Next up: Possible links between convicted murderer Charles Manson and yesterday’s traffic jams in the downtown area.”
Are these two things linked? Absolutely, if you loosen your criteria enough, everything is linked by its presence on the same planet at the same moment in time – but only a very few links are instructive or meaningful.
Links are a great news trick, because you can tie a remote, unconfirmed, or even unimportant story to something that’s really pushing buttons. “Next up: Possible links to Bin Laden” is all you have to say to get attention these days.
Almost always when you hear the word link, there is no confirmed link.
“...our Nation’s water supplies…”
“...our Nation’s roadways…”
“...our Nation’s shipping ports…”
They use this trick to imply some large scale to a story. “A new threat to our nation’s water supplies” won’t be a threat to our nation’s anything. Our nation is enormous. Nothing, not even nuclear bombs, poses a threat to all of any system in our society at the same time. When they say “our nation’s” anything, they are usually trying to give grand significance to something that doesn’t have grand significance. We might not perk up as much if they said, “A new threat to Klopp County’s water supply…” The incident in which old Doc Ames truck leaked oil into the reservoir just isn’t gonna scare up enough ratings. But it could: “Next up, a new threat to our nation’s water supply. An alarming incident that experts say could happen anywhere!”
SHOCKING NEW DETAILS:
“Shocking new details when we come back.” Well, first of all, the details are not likely to be new, and if so critical, why are we waiting till after the commercial, and anyway, what does shocking mean at this point? Unless the news anchor reaches through the screen and pulls my hair, I don’t imagine he could shock me. They’ve ruined another word for themselves.
“Auditors cite loopholes in security at our nation’s libraries.”
That’s right, anytime you have an audit or an inspection, you’re going to find something. Auditors are people who’ve been hired to write reports identifying deficiencies. Have you ever heard of a one-line audit report? “The auditors didn’t a find one damn thing that could possibly be improved.” Did you ever hear of an inspector who said: ‘We’ve wasted six months on this inspection, because the place is bloomin’ perfect. Whoever’s running this show sure thought of everything.”
The implication projected in a story about a security loophole is that someone will come crashing through the loophole – but that is not necessarily so. They tell you (and the terrorists) about the loophole because it is frightening, not because it’s enlightening.
“IN A CAREFULLY WORDED STATEMENT…”
“In a carefully worded statement, the President said…” Is this as distinct from those statements that world leaders just have the kids throw together? “Carefully worded” is often used to imply that something is being hidden.
“Officials consider the threat to be serious.” Is that to distinguish this threat from the threats they laugh about over lunch? Taking something seriously does not mean the risk is great or imminent. It just means officials are doing what anyone would do.
“Officials here are taking no chances when it comes to school safety.” Sort of. More likely, they’re taking no chances that reporters will broadcast a report accusing them of taking chances.
OFFICIALS ARE CLOSELY MONITORING…
Implies that something is imminent, and worthy of being closely monitored. “Closely monitoring” is like “Officials are on the lookout for…” Both phrases suggest that something bad is surely coming, as if officials are standing outside looking around with binoculars.
“NASA reports that a large piece of space junk -PERHAPS as big as a freighter– COULD enter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime tonight over North America. Experts warn that it is could potentially slam into the earth.”
What are we to do with this report? Move a little to the left or right? They don’t say, of course, that every night, thousands of pieces of space junk enter the Earth’s atmosphere and completely burn up before ever hitting the ground, or that no person on Earth has ever been struck and killed by a piece of space junk. Or that if something’s as big as a freighter before entry, it might end up as small as a grain of sand – but it could potentially hit your house, I suppose.
AN ALARMING PERCENTAGE…
15%, 20%, 25%…
“15% of Americans are at risk of being seriously injured in car accidents on our nation’s highways this year.” Whenever you see a percentage cited, reverse it and think about the other share in the equation. For example, from the story above you can conclude that 85% of Americans are not at risk of being seriously injured in car accidents this year. Sort of good news, all things considered. Also, phrases such “a sizeable percentage,” or “an alarming percentage” can be applied to just about any percentage. Get the actual number, and then you decide if it’s sizeable or alarming to you.
AS MANY AS:
“Experts warn that as many as 25,000 people in America may be carrying the deadly gene…” or “As many as twenty states may be susceptible to radiation leakage disasters.”
“As many as” means somewhere between zero and the number given.
“IN A DEVELOPING STORY…”
A phrase used when they don’t really have the story yet.
“But one former employee at the doomed refinery reveals shocking new information…”
What does he reveal? That they fired him because he was too ethical, or because they didn’t want to hear the truth? Or that he knew all along? Anyway, he wasn’t there the night of the fire, so is he the best source of information? Truth in advertising would require the reporter to say: “We interviewed one man who hasn’t been to the refinery in three months – his opinion, next.”
LANGUAGE FROM ONE STORY BEING USED IN ANOTHER:
As certain words and phrases become symbolic or evocative from one type of story, they’ll use them in another. In the days after 9/11 I saw a TV news report about a tropical storm making “a direct hit” on a tiny coastal community, as if the hurricane were aiming. (And the word tiny is used because it implies vulnerability. Storms that make direct hits on tiny places are frightening bullies.) A story about a flight that experienced extreme turbulence is headlined “Terror in the Sky.”
As in the popular “deadly virus;” this word is used to imply that everyone who gets the virus perishes, when the truth is that very few people die from the virus. If a really serious virus ends up being fatal for 20 percent of the people who contract it, then truth in advertising would require language such as: “Next up, a local man is stricken with a highly survivable virus.”
It’s quite a bit shy of deadly when someone tests negative for anthrax, yet in the weeks after 9/11, even a negative test for a “deadly” virus was presented as a frightening thing.
To put this into perspective, flu-related disorders killed 5000 times as many people as anthrax in 2001. Is anthrax still scary? Yes, and all the more so because of the implication that it was everywhere (colored maps showing the places in the U.S. where anthrax was found or suspected). It wasn’t everywhere. Reports were everywhere. And the same report repeated seventy-five times is still the same report. But you wouldn’t know that by the excited delivery: “New details emerge in that anthrax case.” Details maybe, but not new – far more likely when you watch TV news, they’ll be the same “new” details for the tenth time that day.
A storm is described as deadly: “We’ll have new information on that deadly hurricane that’s heading up the coast.” A hurricane qualifies for the word “deadly” when someone, somewhere on the hurricane’s round-the-hemisphere journey dies as a result of the storm. That does not mean the hurricane tries to kill all people it encounters, but that’s the implication – that something dangerous is coming. You’ll note that the people who die are usually in a situation far different than yours: They are on a small fishing boat at night off the coast of Peru, and you’re at home 1200 feet above sea level.
“IN A LAST MINUTE DEVELOPMENT…”
“IN A SURPRISE DEVELOPMENT…”
Usually means they didn’t get a news crew there in time. Or they didn’t warn you about it yet, which actually is interesting, since there’s only two or three possible awful outcomes involving human beings and they haven’t warned us about yet.
As in “Disturbing questions have been raised about the safety of our nation’s…” Yes, the questions are disturbing. They’re disturbing everyone. Please stop raising them.
“A NEW STUDY REVEALS…”
“A NEW REPORT WARNS…”
Yes, reports and experts do seem to warn, fear, and worry a lot.
“EXPERTS SAY IT’S JUST A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE…”
They sure do.
BUT NEW YORKERS FEEL…
Global conclusions drawn from man-on-the-street interviews represent literally nothing. You can edit a story into “New Yorkers feel terrified,” or “New Yorkers are ready to move on” – and it all depends upon which of the five interviews you cut into the piece broadcast.
Here are two quotes brought back by one NBC News crew:
“I think if you change your life, they’re winning,” says Captain Frank Carver. “So the more we continue our daily routine, better off we all are.”
At Pat’s Country Bakery nearby, Joann Charters concedes she’s still apprehensive. “It’s a really scary feeling with kids in school. You don’t know what’s gonna happen,” says Charters.”
To accurately summarize these quotes you’d have to say: “Some people feel one way and some other people feel another way. Back to you, Tricia.”
Joann Charters citing that it’s scary because “you don’t know what’s going to happen” is right on. That’s why it’s scary: because you don’t know what’s going to happen – not because you do know, not because danger is advancing toward you, but because it is not.
TV news stories like this are filler, background, static, irrelevant. You don’t need a reporter and a video crew to bring you man-in-the-street opinions. There are men on your street you can get opinions from. Or you could just talk to your friends and family.
Any list of warning signs implies great risk. I recall a rash of reports about car-jacking in Los Angeles, and this list of warning signs:
Armed stranger approaches car;
Taps on closed window;
Looks around suspiciously.
And then they offered the checklist of precautions, given by an “expert on car-jacking.” (Is there a college course on that?) The checklist:
Keep doors locked;
Don’t let strangers into your car;
This is tantamount to:
“NEXT UP: CRIMINALS WHO HIDE OUT IN YOUR PURSE AND ROB YOU WHEN YOU GET HOME!”
Purse feels extra heavy;
Strange noises coming from purse.
“Officials admit that the incident could have developed into a full-fledged riot…” In this context, admit means that when a reporter asked, “If police had never reached the scene, and if a hundred other factors had fallen into place in an extraordinarily unlikely way, couldn’t this have developed into a full-scale riot?” Yes, it could have – an admission.
It may seem you are getting expert advice on the news, but that’s far from so. The moment you edit what an expert says, it’s just words you might as well put in the blender. Would you let a TV news crew mediate your doctor’s advice? Imagine being challenged by a difficult illness and your doctor’s compassionate and complete 30-minute presentation was edited down to 23 seconds.
That’s what the local news brings you: expert opinion edited, mediated, and minimized by non-experts who ask questions designed to elicit the most alarming responses. “Yes, yes, Dr. Stevens, but if it did happen, it would be terrible wouldn’t it?
When the news media assign a nickname to a wanted criminal (e.g., The Night-stalker, The Hillside Strangler) or to a disease (Legionaire’s or Flesh-Eating Diseases), it is indicative of a hoped-for series of reports. When it’s a type of crime (Follow-home Robberies), a trend is not far behind.
For example, freeway shootings and “Road Rage” led to all these headlines: “AGGRESSIVE DRIVERS TURN FREEWAYS INTO FREE-FOR-ALLS,” “ROAD RAGE: DRIVEN TO DESTRUCTION,” “HIGHWAY VIOLENCE SPREADING LIKE AN EPIDEMIC.”
Next comes “Officials are concerned,” and soon enough –as with Road Rage, you’ve got hearings before the House Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, and somebody (in this case, committee staff member Jeff Nelligan) calling the issue, “A national disaster.” Presumably, Mr. Nelligan would tone that down a bit today – all of us having found a new meaning for the words “national disaster.”
I TOLD YOU SO…
An NBC News story quotes a member of a university task force on weapons of mass destruction: “We’ve been talking about this for years and people in general have not been interested.” Is there some surprise there – that someone on a task force about weapons would be talking about weapons? The intended implication of these stories is that if someone had just listened, this could all have been prevented. How could discussions at some college task force have been used to prevent anthrax scares? If we had listened, what would be different? This is like an earthquake happening and earthquake experts saying, “We warned you.” Yes, you did; you said there’d be an earthquake sometime. If only we’d listened.
These are stories where TV news people cannot lose. They ask hospitals or public health officials or the utility company or the fire department if they can handle a disaster of X magnitude. If the response is yes, they just keep upping the disaster magnitude until the response is no.
Here’s an example from NBC News: “A survey of 30 hospitals in four states and Washington, D.C., found them ill-equipped to handle a widespread biological disaster.” A guaranteed fear-inducer, pokes right at our insecurity. First off, just asking the question implies that a “widespread disaster” is coming, and it’s even better if the survey was part of a “new study,” because that implies that the question itself is well founded.
Either way, the basic premise of the story is true: If hospitals currently able to handle 500 patients an hour get 5000 patients in some terrible hour, they will be unprepared. The standard of care will drop. Is there something surprising about that? Do TV news writers think Americans assume there is some extra team of 200 doctors and an extra 5000 fully-equipped hospital beds waiting in their community somewhere just out of sight?
Indeed, hospitals are unprepared for that which they have never had to be prepared. Being able to deal with what predictably comes down the pike and putting your resources where they are most likely to be needed is good planning. An emergency room would have to trade some daily-used resource to be ready for mass casualties that don’t appear to be coming. Yes, as the world changes and events change, so does preparation – but expecting hospitals to be fully prepared, for example, to treat thousands of inhalation anthrax casualties when there’s been a few lethal cases in 30 years would constitute bad planning.
One can make an “unprepared” story about anything; America’s police are unprepared for a “widespread crime disaster;” our supermarkets are unprepared for a “widespread food shortage.” It all depends upon how you define the word widespread. Put a microphone in some official’s face and ask if he’s adequately prepared for an attack on the harbor by Godzilla, and you’ve got an unreadiness story.
WILL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN…
“Being stuck in the elevator for six days is an experience Betty Hamilton will never forget.” This is used as a measure of how serious an incident it was, but did anyone imagine she was going to forget it? “I think I was stuck in an elevator for six days, but I can’t quite remember.”
Pay attention to the very last line in news reports. They are rarely summaries, but rather are designed to keep the story open for more reports. Most often, the closing line takes a last bite at the fear apple, one final effort to add uncertainty and worry. “Many here are left wondering if it will ever be safe.” “Fear continues its tight grip on this tiny community.” “Whether more will die remains to be seen.” In the world of TV news, frightening stories never end. We never hear the words “And that’s that.”
Let’s put a few of these newsroom strategies together into a story and see how it looks. As the basis for our mock TV news report, I’ll draw on something that actually happened to my assistant. Earlier this year, her wrist was injured when a dog bit her.
“NEXT UP: DOGBITES! THE BONE-CRUSHING POWER OF DOGS. Experts warn that even friendly dogs can bite, sometimes without provocation. And they’re everywhere. A new Government study estimates as many as 300 dogs per square mile, with the numbers climbing each year. How many backyards in your neighborhood are hiding a deadly menace? We’ll tell you what experts say – when we come back.
A shocking bite from the dog everyone described as “a little angel” leaves one area woman nursing her wounds. Dog-jaw experts say that even a small dog can produce as much as 500 pounds of biting force, and given the rate at which dogs breed, it’s just a matter of time before more people are placed at risk. A former employee with the Department of Health says hospitals are unprepared for a major increase in dogbites, and officials are closely monitoring this situation that could pose a deadly threat to our nation’s neighborhoods. Disturbing questions have been raised about loopholes in the licensing system, and observers point out that dogs who bite can receive licenses and be released into neighborhoods.
THE WRAP UP:
It’s no surprise that many local residents are living in fear: “You never know when somebody is walking their dog right behind you. We’re scared.” Officials say links between the recent dogbite and one that occurred in the tiny town of Ames, Iowa have not been confirmed, but either way, it’s a nightmare few will ever forget. And one that many fear will not be over in the morning.”
Coming to understand these popular phrases and strategies, and being able to see around them has made me appreciate those news reports that are direct, clear, and informative. Since many news people use these tricks, those who do not stand out as all the more special and valuable.
If you watch TV news, you’re probably going to spot lots of sensationalizing tactics I’ve missed, and maybe even start a list of your own. If finding them becomes an occasionally enjoyable part of your news-viewing experience, that in itself will be great news.