News Talk: Investigating the Language of Journalism

Ben McConville appreciates a thought-provoking insight into journalese and those who speak it

July 1, 2010

Journalists have their own way of communicating with each other. Conversation in a British newsroom is a rich mix of coded signs, jargon, Cockney rhyming slang, occasional bookmaker references and rather more colourful Anglo-Saxon, fired in staccato bursts.

If "journalese" is the language of news, then it starts long before a word is put to paper or broadcast. Journalists see the world differently from "civilians". They interpret information, digest and decide what is important via a complicated and often opaque set of norms and conventions.

The view of journalism from the academy, however, sometimes borders on hysteria. Like disapproving headteachers, we chide, reprimand and are generally dismayed at the antics of the spivs who carry a press card. So what a relief it is to read a book on the subject from the perspective of linguistics and written by someone who clearly likes journalists and journalism. In News Talk, Colleen Cotter, a former news reporter turned linguist, looks at how language plays a pivotal role in news gathering and writing.

She explains how linguistics influences the news, examining newsroom conversation, social and structural factors, the audience and the processes of news production. What is fascinating about this book is its comparison between the different ways hacks and non-journalists conceptualise newsworthiness. Cotter found that practitioners are preoccupied by the daily routine of the job and how news is shaped or reported: journalists are inevitably concerned with questions such as "did the story make the paper?" or "did I miss a quote?" In contrast, the consumer or lay reader believes news is shaped or slanted ideologically to sell newspapers.

For the reporter, the process of newsgathering becomes all consuming. The main preoccupation of most British journalists is to not screw up, and this, of course, is the source of the pack mentality that keeps coverage homogeneous. But there is more to it than that. There is a large element of self-censorship that goes on in the process of newsgathering and writing - followed, of course, by the hand of the editor.

Linguistics pervades all aspects of journalism. A reporter's "rhetorical ability" in writing a good intro is part of this professional practice, says Cotter, but it also goes deeper than this. It is a journalist's linguistic ability to pitch a story verbally that makes all the difference. The huge amount of general knowledge and understanding that journalists store works only if they have a clear and honest understanding of their own prejudices. If not, it means that much of their world view is nothing more than social cultural reductionism.

From the moment a junior reporter steps on to the newsroom floor, he or she is indoctrinated into the ways of journalism. It is an apprenticeship by immersion that was once carried out on copy boys but now starts through experiential learning in university courses. Cotter explains how reporters learn and are shaped through practice, professional identity, the variation of language and the loci of learning, either through education or on the job.

News Talk is ambitious in its scope and includes a welcome call for dialogue between journalists and linguists. It looks at the industry in the US and Britain, but never succumbs to Winston Churchill's maxim that we are divided by a common language. A great touch is the dual glossary - one for linguistic terms, the other for journalism jargon.

This is a refreshing and thought-provoking insight into the industry. If you love the language of journalism, you should read this.

News Talk: Investigating the Language of Journalism

By Colleen Cotter
Cambridge University Press, 294pp, £50.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780521819619 and 525657
Published 11 February 2010

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