Category Archives: Journalism

Sales Speak and Trick Terminology

“What do you think of this ad?” my elderly cousin asked of me this past weekend. I won’t get into the product itself, but I could understand her interest, as the verbiage used ambiguity and well-chosen qualifiers to entice her, the reader.

“I’m not a lawyer,” I told my cousin, but the advertisement seemed to ride the fine edge of legal boundaries in order to be published in the magazine. I suppose some publications, more than ever these days, are desperate enough to do anything for a buck, as long as they are reasonably protected from litigation.

I know businesses have done this for many years, but this was a relatively respectable senior magazine, so I thought. Instead of using words implying any sort of guarantee that it would actually perform as expected, this advertisement used sales speak and trick terminology, such as “may,” “can” or “possibly” to describe the capabilities of their intriguing, but worthless product. In fact, reading it carefully, they actually made no promise or guarantee that the device would work at all. Even the four paragraphs of fine print – very fine print – at the bottom of the page disclaimed any “guarantee of performance” in a sentence of 96 words.

To further insulate themselves from liability, the company advertising their “wonderful” product, threw in the phrase, “based on proper usage and assembly.” I suppose the definition of that was clarified somewhere in that fine print too.

Of course, my cousin, as she read it with her nearly 79-year-old eyes, saw it from the opposite perspective. To her, she understood it to be a miracle device that would change her life and it was only $99.99. “Very affordable,” the advertisement read, “and now for under $100.” It should have technically read “for less than $100,” but that was just my journalistic arrogance emerging and, of course, beside the point.

For $150 or even $100, my cousin said she probably would not buy the product, but that one penny’s difference apparently placed it magically within the bounds of her budget, despite my own expectation that it would break within an hour after unwrapping the slick packaging which they had illustrated, again, if it ever were to work at all.

After explaining the verbal dog-and-pony-show to her, my cousin seemed to understand what I was expressing. Yet, after reviewing the advertisement on her own a second time, my cousin seemed more doubtful about my explanation as opposed to what she saw in print. In the end, I can’t be sure whether or not she placed an order and I sensed that, if I did ask, she wouldn’t tell me anyway, especially after our chat.

 

“Creative News”

Newspapers

In my previous life, as they say, when I was a journalist writing news articles, everything had to be to true – whatever that means anymore – and it had to be backed up with documented facts and/or quotes. Every detail had to be accurate.

However, even back then, I had the fiction bug. So, every so often I exercised the liberty of combining journalistic fact with my emerging passion for fiction. For the fun of it, I would twist and pervert the rules and write fake news articles, backed by fake attributions and fake quotes.

I would write articles that possessed just enough truth to gain the reader’s attention, but plenty of fiction and sometimes humor so they would know by halfway through the article it was all a bunch of garbage.

Below, for example, is one of my short “creative news” articles I wrote several years ago, complete with a fictitious newspaper name. It was when American troops were still fighting in Afghanistan. I just adjusted the date to make it current for this posting:

KARACHI TIMES HERALD – Karachi, Pakistan, July 30:      The two-day terrorist strike crippling the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region has been directly attributed to the drop in death and destruction by more than 50 per cent along of normal rates.  Official sources in Islamabad claim that while an eerie, peaceful tone has engulfed that border region, the national economy has already developed signs of weakness, especially in smaller towns, reliant on “terrorist projects” and “anti-Western initiatives.” Estimates of a two-week strike is the consensus from both sides of the bargaining table.

“Even the flow of black market goods has slowed to a trickle,” Interior Minister Insaad indicated.  “Without the terrorists and militias along the border,” he said, “American and Afghan troops are more easily able to close smuggling paths and regulate border check points.”

Ahmed, a mid-level terrorist operative, wishing to withhold his full name, agreed with a half dozen colleagues rolling cigarettes outside a Peshawar smoke shop, saying that faith and conviction alone do not put food on the family table.  “We risk our lives every day,” Ahmed said.  “I have seven to feed in my family and others here have as many as 10 or 11.”  He claimed that attacking villages, battling the American invaders and bombing cars is not just risky, but is heavy and exhaustive labour that deserves better pay and working conditions.

With more than 2,500 terrorists and recruits estimated to have joined the picket lines since Monday, surprise has been the response by authorities to the reduced number of attacks and high crimes throughout Pakistan and even in neighbouring regional centres, such as Kabul, Kandahar and Delhi.

 

Sometimes You Just Gotta Let It Out

A few weeks ago, I explained that my writing background is in journalism. While I am genuinely working to develop my creative side of writing, I find my roots, at least on a technical level, are still firmly rooted in my journalistic education. Face it, after 30 years of working to perfect any trade, it is hard to execute an about-face or even a deviation in one’s path.

So, setting aside my emerging creative aspirations and focusing this week on my anal, journalistic side, I want to address a couple of issues – “pet peeves,” you can call them – that I have in the hopes, that by jotting them down on paper (or a blog), I can shake them off and, perhaps, get them out of my system so I can move on. By the way, can I even use the word “anal?”

My rant is not about creative writing, but is directed mostly at professional journalism and, specifically, news broadcasters, although print reporters are not entirely innocent either.

Try this on for size: “The tornado completely destroyed the high school.” With all the storms in our area, this type of phrase has been used lately, either out of carelessness or perhaps toward exploiting the dramatic effect. But, as I was taught and had beaten into to me by my teachers, that if a building is “destroyed,” would it not be by definition “complete” and total? If it is not “complete,” then it would be “damaged,” since “destruction” is already all or nothing.

You see, journalism is about using language effectively and efficiently, meaning that redundancies on the professional level, as I was taught, are not tolerated.

Another example comes from the news of a recent tornado in Oklahoma where it was reported that “a warehouse had been totally leveled.” Again, if a building is leveled, would it not be “total?”

Then there is the word “unique,” which is also abused constantly by broadcasters and just about everyone else these days. According to Merriam-Webster, “unique” primarily means: “being the only one.” I say “primarily,” because the word has been abused with terms such as, “very unique” so commonly that their dictionary has a sidebar dedicated to the debate of how some people accept the term. After all, if an item or person is unique, how could adding the word “very” make it any more of one of a kind.

There are other examples in contemporary journalism that I could discuss, such as how the word “literally,” which has come to be overused and abused; or how the small word “very,” as referred to above, is frequently added for emphasis where it is not needed.

So there, call me “anal” but at least I got my rant and a couple of my pet peeves out in the open.

 

Breaking On Through to the Other Side

"Garden of Eden," by Michelle Olsem

“Garden of Eden,” by Michelle Olsem

 

Confession time! I come from the world of journalism. For those writing creatively all your lives, you may (or may not) know that both worlds are more or less opposites.

Journalism is all about following a formula of getting the lead at the top of an article and then covering the details to the end, starting with the most critical and working down in priority.

When I studied journalism, late last century, the rules were strict and we got marked down in class for errors, such as spelling, punctuation and grammar – basics you would assume professional reporters and news editors should know and strictly practice. And back then, at least, we did. These days, based on the newspapers and websites I read, not so much, even with spell check.

At first, it was a challenge to adapt to the world of creative writing using journalistic standards. The most difficult part has been proofreading, because I can drive myself into the looney bin double checking my spelling, punctuation and grammar, along with making sure my you-know-whats are dotted and my other you-know-whats are crossed. During that stringent process, of course, the creative juices are not flowing and the focus is not on the plot or story line.

Another big difference is that journalism and news reporting needs to be factual – ha, go figure. For some reason, making things up is frowned upon, as they expect you to research what really happened and talk to witnesses. It’s all about facts, and quoting sources with such phrases as “according to” or “the police sergeant said.” And, if one little fact is wrong or a word or two in a quote is inaccurate, you’ve got to go back and correct it, even if it requires a phone call back to the source.

Compared to news reporting, creative writing is like stepping out of a jail cell into a boundless Garden of Eden with flowing rivers and playful animals frolicking over lush rolling hills (music please). Even so, I tried fighting the change at first by sticking to my high and mighty standards. That, obviously, did not work. So eventually, it has come down to a gradual process of personal evolution, as I aim for what seems like a mythical sweet spot between the cookie-cutter parameters of journalism and the free-flowing world of creativity.