Journalism at its Worst


I have always been a staunch supporter of the newspaper.  My favorite way to begin my day is to read the paper over a light breakfast–in front of a roaring fire if it’s a cold, wintry day.  I do watch the news on television occasionally, but I much prefer the more in-depth coverage of the printed word.  Don’t get me wrong:  I am perfectly aware that the written news is just as biased and as often in error as televised news.  Cynic that I am, I never take a journalist’s word for anything.  My husband, a police officer, has sometimes noted that the items of news he is aware of from his work are never reported accurately.  But I am fine with taking everything I read with a grain of salt and I think I’m pretty good at sifting through and finding truth where it’s offered.

But until recently, one could at least be certain of the quality of writing in a newspaper..  I took some journalism courses myself in college, so I am aware of the training it takes to prepare for a such a career.  I was taught that journalists were representatives of the people and should uphold the highest standards of excellence in writing.  Therefore, the shocking language I’ve been subjected to in our newspapers of late appalls me.  I refer to the astoundingly poor grammar many of our reporters have been using in the past few years.

Now, I am not a grammar prude:  I don’t expect perfect grammar in casual conversation, and use relaxed standards myself for everyday communication.  But speaking the language casually and writing it professionally are two different things.  Lapses in grammar are unforgivable in such a forum.  Journalists should be taught to use impeccable grammar in their work; and since even “Homer nods”, editors should be alert enough to catch any errors that creep into writer’s copy.  Writers in the news media should be setting an example for the public at large in correct use of formal language. I have in the past used the newspaper as an aid in teaching my writing and literature classes.  I will have to be more selective in my curriculum in the future.

I’ve been disappointed in the quality of writing in the newspaper for some time, but the breaking point was an article I read this past weekend in which the phrase “drug through the mud” was used, not once but twice!  Now I grant you that this was a quotation.  But I can think of only few reasons that this particular quotation was chosen the by writer of the article in question.  This was a quote by a spokesperson for a large, prominent, influential organization with thousands of members.  Could it really be that there could be no one found to speak for this important organization who was capable of conjugating a simple verb?  I’m afraid that may be true.  But if not, and there were other spokesmen which the journalist could have chosen to quote, why did he chose to quote the less educated speaker?  Was it because he deliberately wanted to make this organization seem ignorant and backward?  Or did this journalist really not recognize substandard speech when he heard it?  I am so afraid that this last is the true explanation.

I’ve been noticing more and more frequent lapses in usage lately.  For example, the use of “who” instead of “whom”; using “it’s” when “its” is indicated; incorrect use of quotation marks and commas.  I know I sound picky, but if we begin to allow error to creep in, where do we stop?  Correct grammar is important to reduce misinformation and misinterpretation of the writer.  As one is unable to hear the tone of voice used, correct grammar is much more essential in writing than in speaking.  I have also noticed an increase in the use of slang or colloquialisms in news articles, as the public’s vocabulary grows smaller.  Slang is fine in casual conversation, but formal English should always be used in a forum such as a newspaper:  the newspaper should be setting the standard in correct writing. It is already becoming increasingly difficult to converse intelligently with the general public because so many people no longer understand standard English.  The fact is, we can only think and talk about ideas that we have the words to express.  With a shrinking vocabulary and a growing inability to wield a pen, it is getting harder and harder for people to understand the world around them or to express ideas with any depth.

This is pathetic, because the English language is the richest and most expressive in the world, with the most extensive vocabulary.  The newspaper should be enriching us, stretching us to greater knowledge, instead of catering to the lowest common denominator of education.  I have noticed that as our ability to keep in touch with one another increases in ease, the topics of our conversation have dropped to the most basic levels:  what we are doing at the moment and how we feel about it.  Topics, in fact, that most animals are able to communicate by touching noses.  As humans, language gives us the ability to explore new ideas and discuss abstract thought; communicate facts and advance intelligent discourse on many subjects; express reasoned and logical arguments and debate differences with nuanced skill.  At least, we should be able to expect as much from our local newspaper.

I offer this example: the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf.  For months, every single news article I read about this event said that the oil pipe was “busted”.  Not any of the other dozens of more precise English words that could have been used was used–this uninformative slang word was consistently the only word used to describe the accident.  The pipe was never  cracked, split, burst, crushed, snapped, fractured, or broken.  Just busted.  Steam rising from the top of my head, I finally had enough one day and began to rant about it to my poor husband.  “Unless that pipe was arrested, charged with a crime, and tried before a jury of its peers, it was not busted!”  I exclaimed in disgust.  My husband glared at me.  “A law enforcement officer,” he growled with a look of offended dignity, “resents, abhors, and strongly objects to the use of such a slang term when referring to the apprehension, arrest, and conviction of a criminal through due process.”

See what I mean?


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