Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Every setback a crisis, every death a tragedy

Saturday 17 September 2011 13:02

"When you read something described by a journalist as shocking," so the old saying runs, "you know you don't need to take it seriously." I thought of this last week when a politician friend bent my ear about the use of overheated language in reporting the current economic downturn.

"I haven't noticed any bankers jumping from the top floors of their offices or estate agents shooting themselves," he complained. "There are no unshod children in the streets. No one appears to be starving. So why do you keep using words like 'disaster' and 'crisis'? All this hyperbole does Britain no favours."

Now, there's no doubt that inflated language is the enemy of good journalism. Words such as "sensational", "shocking", "tragic" or "disturbing" are often used to describe events that are none of these things. And so words get devalued, and it becomes harder next time to describe a truly shocking event. There's a simple rule that facts always sound better when allowed to speak for themselves.

But surely 'The Independent on Sunday' can't be guilty here? Isn't this sort of hype the province of the "red-tops"? Sadly, I have to put 'The IoS' in the dock, too. Research shows that this paper has used the word "crisis" an average of more than 10 times each issue over the past month. Hardly any of these usages pass the hype test.

I'm not in favour of banning words in newspapers, otherwise you end up with the sort of lifeless writing typical of 'The New York Times', memorably described as having "the dullest prose outside the White House". But I do have a little list of overworked words I think readers probably hate:

Crisis – There is a food crisis in Zimbabwe, but not at the checkout in Waitrose.

Massive – So where do we go from here? Very massive?

Miracle – Odd how many so-called cures seem to be the result of a "miracle". God must be very busy. Funny, though, how they rarely seem to work.

Sensational – A sensational event by definition speaks for itself. If a journalist has to describe it as such, it's almost certainly not.

Revealed – Save "revelations" for the New Testament. Try removing the word from almost any headline and it's guaranteed to be improved.

Dramatic – Best used by the theatre critic.

Tragic – Likewise. Very useful in 'Hamlet' and 'King Lear', but spare readers of the news pages.

Exclusive – Curious how rival papers so often run an "exclusive" tag on the same story on the same day. It remains a mystery why journalists are so keen to devalue their own currency.

So all you writers be warned. I'll be watching. And counting. And so will our readers. Let's avoid a crisis, shall we?

Message Board: Is age banding a way to attract young readers?

Publishers are keen to introduce age recommendations on children's books. The exchange shows it's not only authors who object:


Of course it's helpful. If you have no idea of the content of the book then a helping hand is very welcome. What's the authors' problem? It's not as if they're going to stop stocking their books.

john problem

The authors don't have to worry, do they? But in publishing we have to work hard to get our bonus, especially since most publishers are now American or German and can be very nasty about sales targets.

HP Nettell

Age guidance is one thing. Age banding of books is quite another. 'Banding' discourages children who read 'below' their chronological age and restricts all those readers who would like to fly.

Anne Fine

I have seen my book 'Bill's New Frock' offered to children of every age between 6 and 12. Another popular book of mine is 'Madame Doubtfire'. I receive letters about it from readers of 8 to 80.

adele geras

Good bookshops already shelve stock by age and specialist bookshops have very knowledgeable staff. But buyers ought to look at books themselves and judge what creatures they have in their hands.

Pete Rose

Will the Bible and Koran be available only to those over 18? There's more violence, rape and murder in those two books than most others put together. We shouldn't pollute young minds now, should we?

Christine Glass

To improve children's skills, read to them. Read a variety of texts from many genres. That way you'll find a story that will engage a reluctant reader. An age recommendation on the book will waste all your efforts.

Lori Jackson

Websites for guidance, yes! But do not for ever put a book out of reach by demeaning a struggling reader, barring a nostalgic reader or coming between an advanced reader and the book that could be THE book.

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