Bad writing in the mainstream press


Michael Kinsley, a witty and incisive journalist formerly of Crossfire and Slate, has an amusing critique in The Atlantic of the awful writing that dominates so much of America’s “mainstream media.” My only regret is that he was so gentle, by Kinsley standards.

I have long felt the same way, especially since I taught a course at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where a lot of the students in my class were already “spoiled” by the same conventions that Kinsley here lampoons. And yet, I could not dissuade my students from using those conventions. So they produced over-long and corny writing that you might find, well, in the New York Times.

What are those conventions? First, says Kinsley, grandiose verbiage:

Once upon a time, this unnecessary stuff was considered an advance over dry news reporting: don’t just tell the story; tell the reader what it means. But providing “context,” as it was known, has become an invitation to hype. In this case, it’s the lowest form of hype—it’s horse-race hype—which actually diminishes a story rather than enhancing it.

Next, the convention of banal, pointless and stupid quotes from “experts”, which repetitively restate what the article’s author has already stated, and where identifying the speaker takes up more words than are in the (unnecessary) quote. Example:

“Now is the chance to fix our health care system and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, said as she opened the daylong proceedings. (Quote: 18 words; identification: 21 words.)

Why? Because in this American convention,

it’s not [the reporter's] job to have a view. In fact, it’s her job to not have a view. Even though it’s her story and her judgment, she must find someone else—an expert or an observer—to repeat and endorse her conclusion. These quotes then magically turn an opinionated story into an objective one.

Compare this with our view on quotes at The Economist:

…all meaningless and trivial quotes should be excised … I cannot abide the constant oscillation between (a) serious reporting, and (b) meaningless quotes by non-entities. All I want is the story, clear and concise and preferably with a bit of style. As soon as I get to “Joe Bloggs, an accountant, says ‘these are big numbers’”, I turn over the page… In general, our rule with quotes should be that either the singer or the song should be interesting.

Back to Kinsley. The next stupid convention is the equivalent of what the software industry calls “legacy code”, meaning yet more verbiage

written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine. Who needs to be told that reforming health care (three words) involves “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system” (nine words)? … Anybody who doesn’t know these things already is unlikely to care. (Is, in fact, unlikely to be reading the article.)

Next, what I (as opposed to Kinsley) call “fake color“, the obligatory “anecdotal lede”, whether it is germane and riveting or not. As Kinsley puts it, these are

those you’ll-never-guess-what-this-is-about, faux-mystery narrative leads about Martha Lewis, a 57-year-old retired nurse, who was sitting in her living room one day last month watching Oprah when the FedEx delivery man rang her doorbell with an innocent-looking envelope … and so on.

Kinsley’s conclusion: Cut out the crap. You might be better.

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23 thoughts on “Bad writing in the mainstream press

    • Anthrax, as the story was headlined Oprah Arrested in FedEx Anthrax Plot. Apparently, someone’s not doing her research before commenting. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

  1. Interesting that Mr. Kinsley, et al., only find fault with reporting now that a certain party holds such political power. After all, why reinforce the idea that the health care reform is sweeping or an overhaul rather than simple reform? Totally unnecessary, of course, and the Tea Parties and town hall meetings clearly show the average citizen knows exactly what this reform is all about. He knows, of course, it is “historic” and he knows it is “sweeping” and he knows it is an “overhaul” but does he know what’s in it? Does he know how much it will cost? Does he know when it will take effect and how the Senate and House bills are being reconciled? No, he has been overwhelmed by the hyperbole of the news stories and underwhelmed by the substance.

    I like Mr. Kinsley but I think he is years too late, and miles astray, in his criticism of reporting techniques.

  2. An underlying theme in Kinsley’s piece is that the writing in American newspapers and magazines is too expansive. Too many words and too much fluff.

    Perhaps, though, this a legacy of America’s history.

    I suggest that expansiveness is a defining theme in American history. The first 250 years post-Pilgrim Fathers were ones of continuous geographical expansion. The US may also have been where hucksterism first found its full voice, so that early America was described as the land of the huckster, who used expansive words to sell his wares.

    Advertising (hucksterism) with its expansive use of meaningless words may have influenced the style of writing in American newspapers and magazines.

    The result is what Michael Kinsley talks of.

  3. Two things. It would be interesting to see how the demographics of the journalism profession have changed over the years. Are they as a group younger or older than they were 20 years ago? And what training are they getting. Maybe they are a bunch of journalism majors who have read too much Foucault.

    Second, I heard a journalism professor on the radio whining that the decline in American journalism was due to newspapers reliance on advertising revenues, which have been declining. So maybe Phil is right and too many former ad writers are now journalists!

  4. What an interesting “possibly related post.” One wonders how these are generated?

    I thought this subject would stir up more thought, more comments. I suppose you did too, Andreas. Something along the lines of…

    Is Mr. Kinsley correct in that this trend of journalism is strongly linked to the demise of print news media?

    If so, is it the result of the success of a similar style in cable and network news?

    Following up from the above, has the cable news style altered how network news is presented?

    • Good point, especially given that the “possibly related post” link in this case leads to an anti-evolution piece which does not seem related to Mr. Kinsley’s article at all.

  5. I might agree with Mr. Kinsey that the length of newspaper articles might be one reason news seekers have abandoned print news. And I would certainly agree with him that the “encrusted conventions” of newspaper writing do nothing to add to one’s understanding of the news. But have a more difficult time agreeing that writing on the Internet necessarily “gets to the point.” Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t; and sometimes it doesn’t even have a point. As for the length of newspaper articles, I think it’s important to distinguish between quantity and quality. If a long article is filled with fluff such as that Mr. Kinsey describes, then yes, it is indeed too long. (And that there are too many of these seems to be his point.) But I much prefer (and tend to remember) a long, well written article.

    On a lighter note, one of my favorite examples of “legacy code” is, “China considers Taiwan a renegade province,” which seemingly appears in the last paragraph of nearly every article on cross-straits relations.

    • That’s a fantastic example of legacy code, Saru.

      I suppose this would be the time for me to confess that …

      … I, too, have used “China considers Taiwan a renegade province” in at least on my articles in The Economist when I was covering China earlier this decade.

      Busted.

    • Hah hah. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot like that but commend your honesty Andreas. Although a new visitor to the blog, I have enjoyed the posts and discussions so far. Please keep up the good work. I look forward to reading your book.

  6. As far as I can tell, being foreigner non English mother tongue, I totally agree. I perceive decadence – maybe I’m digressing – which is somewhat similar to Alexandrian-style decadence. To me such decadence is generalized, and it doesn’t always regard journalism, it regards overall writing, in many ways.

    To make a long story short, I have the impression many texts circulating today suffer from the illusion that sophistication of style immediately translates into quality of content. Well, it doesn’t, in my opinion.

    I first thought only the French and Italian Academias (or their respective literatures) suffered from this disease. Now it seems generalized. Alexandrian-style decadence all over the place.

    I mean, something is getting debased, like the Greeklings or Hellenic people the Romans met and surely admired for their past, but despised them more for their character, that had not lived up to their former greatness.

    Who are the Romans today? I see none. I see only Graeculi, Greeklings, apart from a few citadels of excellence, about to be besieged by this new (refined?) vulgarity.
    Or maybe it is just age and I don’t have the feel of the Zeitgeist any more.
    Or maybe I am fooling around, and it is just swine flu.

  7. Thank you for linking to Kinsley’s post. You should have seen the violent nods from my friends in the newspaper industry here (Bangalore, India) when I read it out to them. :-)

    • Hi Kaushik. That means Indian newspaper journalism has fallen prey to the same convetions and cliches of American journalism?

      A pity.

      Incidentally, I was moderating a panel in Silicon Valley of IIT graduates once, and there was a suprising consensus that newspapers are not struggling in India as they are in America.

  8. Oh, yes. You can see the cliches in our leading newspapers all the time. In fact, the observation that it is not the job of journalists to think or make judgments was the one that found most resonance amongst my friends. So you will see a number of columns ending with “expert” or “insider” quotes.

    I would agree with the IIT graduates. The Economist has itself reported that the English and vernacular newspapers here are booming – as millions more are able to afford and read. In addition, it noted the ability to read English newspapers is a status symbol here. I believe so, too.

    Also, I have a question about the Economist, which probably ties in to this thread. The newspaper has a habit of stating/clarifying the obvious. For example, when referring to Goldman Sachs it states it’s an investment bank. Or, as in the current issue, when referring to Afghanistan, it clarifies American has been at war in that country for 9 years. Does the newspaper really believe some its readers are unaware to such depths? Or is it another eccentricity?

    I want to clarify it doesn’t annoy me. In fact, I like it – but I find it peculiar :-)

    • Oh, don’t get me started.

      It irritates me to no end when I have to write “Microsoft, a large software company.”

      Notice, first, that we say “a”, not “the”. That’s because “the” would imply that there is only one large software company, when in fact there are many.

      The idea, I suppose, is that we don’t presume knowledge by our readers. Personally, I often find this EVEN MORE arrogant, since we seem to assume that they can read an article about, say, collateralized debt obligations, and, eight paragraphs deep, need to be reminded that Goldman Sachs is “an American investment bank”.

      It also leads to many unnecessarily boxed sentences (…. says John Smith, the manager in charge of mobile phones at Microsoft, a large software company,……)

      But it’s our style, and The Economist changes only once a century. ;)

      PS: If you’re really interested, let me know. I could do a more thorough post just on this topic.

  9. What I find annoying in journalism is the tendency to, as Kaushik states, to state the obvious while obscuring some background and also not clarifying who a quoted source is before, or when first, using the name. For instance, an article will quote someone using only his/her last name, without identifying who they are until much later in the article. This is likely a result of editing where the paragraph identifying the person got moved. At least I hope so. I have become so used to “unidentified sources” and “unnamed sources” and so on that my eyes just glide over these. I used to read newspapers to fill in the details of TV news stories and, later, of internet news stories. Now, I find that newspapers aren’t filling in the details, simply fluffing the wire service feeds with superfluous filler.

  10. Here is an example of an item that I think is well written, without the unnecessary fluff, but is heavily tainted with bias.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/newsletter/la-na-court-gay-marriage17-2010jan17,0,4639293.story

    This is also a problem, I think. Opinion should be clearly labeled as such. In the above case, we opinion as the story. Nowhere did I see quotes from the court’s opinion, majority or minority, to support the theme of the “report.”

    An example is the unquoted (in the article) statement, opponents of gay marriage and their paid witnesses. Note the last phrase. Wouldn’t you suspect that both sides had some paid witnesses? I would, I have seen enough suits to know that compensation is never limited to the witnesses on one side. But the statement implies that only one side in this case has them.

    The story is about how the opponents of Prop 8 in California view the ruling, not how the ruling affects the case from one side’s POV. But the ruling is about the public’s access to court proceedings, not about the case itself.

  11. Haha. Thanks, Andreas. Any post discussing the oddities of the Economist is interesting. You can sense I’m almost a groupie :-)

    Just another thought: While I have read and heard that the newspaper doesn’t presume knowledge by its readers, and hence, goes on to state the obvious, it is also notorious for attempting to pack very complex arguments and theories in the shortest of sentences – many a time having the reader running to Wikipedia or Google.

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