Getting an inside look at reporters's shorthand


It was with both trepidation and excitement that I began reading "Journalese, A Dictionary for Deciphering the News."

As a newspaper reporter, I've been guilty of using journalese -- the definition given in the book is "the particular code in which journalists report a story a jargon that never appears in normal conversation."

These words and phrases are so common because they are a type of shorthand, and can be a time saver when a reporter is trying to make deadline, but are also a lazy way of telling a story.

This secret language of journalism, be it in print, television or radio, is both elucidated and skewered by the authors Robert Skole, a Pittsfield native, and Paul Dickson. While the dictionary is quite humorous (I found myself chuckling out loud on more than one occasion) it goes beyond merely being funny. It provides non-journalists with a behind-the-scenes look at what is actually being said in news reports.

Besides the most common forms of journalese, the book also provides special sections for food writing, headline writing and election coverage, among others.

While I don't always agree with the authors' definitions --they can sometimes seem unnecessarily harsh -- in general they ring true. They provide keen insights into how the media presents the news and ably attack such overused words and phrases as "iconic," "overkill," "green light," and "magic bullet."

On a more serious note, the authors address instances in which lazy reporting can skew the facts.

For instance, in the reporting of crowd sizes, listed under the term "estimated at," the authors say news outlets often unquestioningly report the size of a crowd at an event, be it a riot or a parade, on numbers provided by officials and others, who underreport or inflate crowd sizes depending on their agenda.

Some funny, and honest, definitions that I liked from the hundreds the authors include in the dictionary are the following:

Rhode Island: unit of geographical measurement, especially for forest fires, oil spills, droughts and other devastation over a huge area.

Complex: [A]ny government or business scheme a reporter can't figure out.

Embattled: the term applied to almost anyone or anything that is under attack, and generally when it's the media doing the attacking.

Essentially: Choice TV news term meaning absolutely nothing, although the reporter may think it's important.

The authors often provide real headlines or content from news agencies as examples.

And yes, The Eagle made it in to the book. The newspaper is in good company since The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and various national TV news agencies are also singled out in the pages of "Journalese."

The book also delves into the misuse of words, "penultimate" being one, which does not mean ultimate, but rather, next-to-last.

Besides providing the readers, viewers and listeners of the news with a deeper understanding of journalese, the dictionary gives newspeople a guide on what to avoid in reporting and should sit on the desk of every reporter and editor in the country to remind them that, on most occasions, their audience is best served without the use of buzzwords, overused clichés or loaded phrases.

About the authors:

Dickson is the author of more than 60 books with a focus on American language, baseball and 20th century history. Titles include "Drunk: The Definitive Drinker's Dictionary," "The Dickson Baseball Dictionary," "Sputnik: The Shock of the Century" and "Slang: A Topical Dictionary of Americanisms." He lives in Garrett Park, Maryland.

Skole, a Pittsfield native, has worked as a reporter, editor and foreign correspondent. He lives in Boston. They are the coauthors of "The Volvo Guide to Halls of Fame."

To reach Andrew Amelinckx:,
or (413) 496-6249.
On Twitter: @BE_TheAmelinckx


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