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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.