Monday, August 30, 2010

(Un)reading Journalese


In the mid-1980s, I was an English-major in college, and trying my luck as a novice journalist. Whenever I had the chance, I used to flip through the pages of The Rising Nepal. I struggled with the newspaper’s wordiness: imbroglio, impasse, deadlock, stalemate, mayhem, brouhaha, tall order, horse-trading, quid pro quo, etc.

In TRN, nouns or adjectives became verbs: to beef up, to up the ante, to foul-mouth, to nation-build, etc. Verbs or adjectives changed into nouns: show-down, stand-off, dole-out, break-down, etc. Verb usage was uncanny: News subjects or sources quipped, rarely said. Renegades were ousted, never expelled. Protagonists lambasted, attacked or lashed out at opponents, never denounced or criticized. Police nabbed culprits, rarely arrested them. Accords were hammered out, not negotiated. Things kicked off, did not start. It was a fiery world: Protests scarcely began, they sparked off. Violence flared up, it did not intensify.

Prices were hiked, not raised. Floods wreaked havoc, rarely caused destruction. Accidents victims were hardly ever hurt or wounded, they sustained injuries. Politicians boasted of their success; they were not merely satisfied of it. They did not conclude deals, but clinched them. They never resigned, they quit. Election candidates were in the fray, not in the contest. Accidents did not have to be man-made to be called mishaps. There were death tolls, not counts. Hit was, in deed, a “hit” word: Cholera hits Achham. Demonstrators hit the streets. Marich Man hits out at Singh. Oil shortage hits Nepal. Indian blockade hits public life. And there were rows and pleas and pledges and bids everywhere.

Other potent words in my watch list included: juggernaut, flabbergasted, kaleidoscopic, killing spree, raison d'être, slew of, duo, trio, septuagenarian, and more. The nameless “Our Correspondent” and “informed sources” helped to add more suspense to the texts. In particular, I could not understand why journalists so often used “journo”, evidently a self-demeaning word.

All these rather jarring expressions offered almost a mystical touch to the newspaper. Jamboree, another recurring word, was fun to read out loud and quickly. It sounded like “jaun budi” in Nepali, “Let’s go, my wife”. Royal “inaugurations” and “audiences” always ensured festive pages, and they came interspersed with other grand bites of the time, like anti-national, decentralization, nation-building, zone of peace, and non-aligned.

Sentence structures defied normal rules of grammar: Said the premier. Her Majesty Monday graced the event (“on Monday”). We always have stood up for Panchasheel (“have always”). The Dhankuta peasants (“the peasants from Dhankuta”). The 4 p.m. meeting (“the meeting at 4 p.m.”) Too many hyphenated clutters: Journalist-turned-politician, forty-year-old, state-of-the-art, hand-in-glove, not-too-subtle, vis-à-vis, tête-à-tête, cul-de-sac, and more. Too many awkward starts, like “Even as…”, “On the issue of …”, “Having visited Palpa…”, “As far as…is concerned…,” “With the turn of events…..”

But since these were PRINTED in the newspaper, I had to accept them as a form of sophisticated writing by some all-knowing journalists. Even the Western newspapers that I occasionally perused at USIS or British Council Library printed grating headlines and teasers, although their texts seemed surprisingly readable.

In the early 1990s when I was exploring “journalism” as a special discipline, I began to doubt the efficacy and sanctity of language in our English newspapers. The arrival of The Kathmandu Post ended government monopoly but it also helped to perpetuate clichés. Journalists embraced new shorthands, borrowed openly from officialese or leaderspeak, such as infant democracy, sustainable development, internal-wrangling, hung-parliament, or by the middle of the decade, “load-shedding”.

Journalese, the specialist form of cliché writing, has done to the English press what Sanskrit has done to Nepali-language press. To the broad brush critics, everything journalists produce is shallow and reductionist, even the professional model of “inverted pyramid” emphasizing the most important facts first, or the principle of “brevity”. As a journalist, I was bothered by trite jargons.

Albert Einstein stressed the intermediate: “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot." That meant I could pride in my “average” knowledge of English language. It came as a relief to know that publications like Time and Newsweek are written at 8th grade level. If journalism emphasized simple communication, then I had no reason to be guilted into thinking that my language was not up to the mark. The challenge was to use that language to communicate in a clear, concise, accurate, direct, and interesting manner. But that is easier said than done; another cliché, unfortunately.

Fair enough, space constraints and deadlines force journalists to resort to brevity, but clichés, their tools of convenience, only obfuscate details. The logic of journalese is more attention, hence the emphasis on drama and sensation, which blur accuracy and truth, and perpetuate stereotypes. Journalese continues to flourish in Nepal also because we still have not nurtured a culture of good copy editing. Indian journalese is known for its distinctive accent and we happily copy many clichés and convoluted bureaucratese from it.

If the world’s best newspapers use journalese, it must be good for us! Almost every story about this country in the foreign newswires or The New York Times reminds us that Nepal is “a tiny Himalayan country flanked by China and India”. Our newspapers get it and do not hesitate to repeat it. Wait a minute- what makes us tiny? The truth is, more than half the world’s 200 nations are smaller than Nepal. The international journalese has charmed us into unwittingly accepting that we are “remote”, “poverty-infested”, and a “failed-state”, or living on “less than half a dollar a day.”

In the post-royal order, a new wave of journalese, churned out from the official gobbledygook, is released on the newspaper pages. There are so many, and there seems to be no “consensus” on what they actually stand for. These include: (this-many-point)-agreement, mainstream, state-restructuring, high-level mechanism, working out the modalities, forward-looking, and regression. South Block and Chinese delegations occur more frequently in recent times as do power-starved and power battle.

These are the times of the Big Three, the “Prez”, the chairman, and perhaps more starkly, ex-king, former king, deposed king, or simply Gyanendra. Sometimes work is tough for our reporters, especially when old labels like “bespectacled”, “controversial” or “outspoken” simply don’t fit the news subjects or circumstances. But they invent a qualifier anyway, like they did for Girija Prasad Koirala when he died: “Tall Leader” (in deed, he was physically). It soon attained the status of a cliché.

The legacy of journalese from TRN has not diminished. It has expanded to include other newspapers. If I can rely on my own reading experience, I would tend to nominate The Himalayan Times as one of the fiestiest these days in this area of journalistic ejaculation. There are at least three types: The “old school” that continues to cling mostly to stale jargons (The Rising Nepal, several weeklies, The Himalayan Times, etc.), the “hybrid school” that cannot let go the old clichés but also seems to adopt new ones (The Kathmandu Post, Republica, etc.), and the “new school” that seems to be always fond of recasting the old ones into new forms and local accents, and sometimes even inventing some (Nepali Times).

I am not even discussing here sports jargons, and other forms of journalese in broadcast or online media. Sure, in their diversity of content and styles our newspapers have become more readable today than ever before. Still, because of unchecked journalese and despite growing English literacy, readability remains a problem. An increase in literacy rates does not automatically enhance news literacy. We don’t know how often and how many readers, especially the young, get turned off by our journalese.

The public have other things to do than decipher cryptic journalistic codes. Newspapers should reconsider their style. One remarkable reform in usage recently is the total renouncement of honorifics. Our mighty hierarchy in the Nepali-language press has been decimated by one single pronoun: timi (you): With royal honorifics gone, English newspapers are also less cluttered these days.

Just as we throw away expired medicine and renew our prescriptions, editors can discard viral clichés and renew usage. Readers should also use media texts more critically; so that they can at least (un)read their journalese, if they are not able to read it.

Published in the Republica, August 29, 2010.