One step we would suggest is for ESPN to demand that its writers and on-air talent find richer language and fresher turns of phrase. We’d be happy never to read or hear “chink in the armor” again on ESPN. That has nothing to do with political correctness or the possibility of an innocent phrase being misconstrued. Rather, it’s that the descriptive power of that phrase was leached away by overuse decades ago, and it’s now just clichéd noise — and a sign of someone on cruise control.
One of my big things about Poynter is that their folks seem to have spent so much time teaching journalism and media ethics that it’s been too long since they practiced it — and this bit in its latest column for ESPN.com on the Jeremy Lin headline incident proves it.
Never mind that ESPN traffics in cliché in general — please see all those anchor catchphrases we knew and loved from Patrick, Olbermann, Levy, Steiner, Mayne, Kilborn, Eisen among others (and in Berman’s case, loathed) — but obviously the Poynter folks have not sat in on a television news consultant meeting or a writers’ workshop (one usually led by management) in a long, long time.
The first thing consultants and many managers will drill out of a writer is interesting vocabulary because we are writing for people who are not our peers and thus do not traffic in our vocabulary and/or references. This is actually useful advice: it helps the writer to write like someone would speak, but the flip side is that new and interesting turns of phrase are actively discouraged while cliché is disdained at the same time. (I have received a list of suggested “phrases to avoid” or outright banned terms at every place I’ve worked at, and at past stations, I’ve even been told I’m writing for children.)
This leads to mordant jokes about trying to work in words with more the four syllables. (One of my co-workers and I had one of them yesterday: I joked about using “audacious” while he wanted to use “cavalcade.”) In essence, you go back on tired phrases and writing two sentences when one is perfectly fine because you don’t want to lose the viewer. So on a deadline when time is tight, you’re going to churn out the first phrase you can — and the temptation is even worse on the graveyard shift. (This is not to defend Anthony Federico or Max Bretos: that alarm bell about “chink” ought to ring loudly, though Bretos’ case seems very harsh because there are good odds he’s ad-libbing.)
N.B. I really, really wish the Poynter contributors listed on the right would assign bylines for the individual column or blog. It really seems even more distant and institutional for a royal “we” without any idea of who’s really talking here and why he or she has come to the conclusions he or she has.