14 June 2009

A Little Tragic

When I was starting out in journalism in the late 1970s, I remember people complaining that journalists were devoid of emotion. That's like criticizing a desert for being devoid of water. Journalism is the craft of compiling and reporting facts, and is supposed to be objective (undistorted by emotion or personal bias) not subjective (modified by individual bias). Emotion is subjective and should be saved for the commentaries.

Over these many years, I have noticed something very disturbing in journalism -- the creeping in of emotion. This does not include, by way of example, Walter Cronkite getting choked up when announcing the death of President Kennedy; no, it is showing itself in very subtle ways. I give you two examples: the uses of the words "little" and "tragic."

Whenever something bad happens to a child, you will notice now that the adjective "little" appears before the noun -- such as "the little boy was hit by a car" or "little Johnny was shot." The article makes it clear that Johnny is only four years old, but the writer feels compelled (either knowingly or not) to emphasize the state of the child by adding the word "little." The use of the word is completely unneeded. (Obviously, a four year old is little. Why emphasize that if not for the emotional pull?)

The next example is "tragic," as in "tragic death." I suppose you could argue this, but on very few occasions is any death not tragic. The writer will say something like "Amy died a tragic death." Well, unless Amy fought debilitating illness for decades after which her death could be argued to be a release, how is any death not a tragedy? And in the recent Air France crash, how many times have you read or heard about the "tragic plane crash"? When is a plane crash not a tragedy? Again, the writer adds an adjective like "tragic" for the emotional pull.

[Speaking of emotional pull, don't get me started on a case like this: "More than 200 people died, including two children." Why emphasize two children? It is trying to say that the loss of a child's life is worse than the loss of any of the other lives? No, it is adding emotional pull.]

Here's a way to find out if you are accidentally letting emotion color your writing: try changing the adjective. Would you say "there was a happy plane crash today" or "the big boy was shot"? If not, then you should not use "little" or "tragic," either. Stick with "there was a plane crash today" or "the boy was shot."

There are likely those who might argue that a little dose of emotion is good, as it softens the journalist in the eyes of the reader and makes him or her seem more human. Journalists are human; but it is not their job to be your best friend -- it is to relate facts.

1 comment:

Matt (scrubbles.net) said...

You raised a lot of good points here. Another thing that annoys me (and reveals the reporter's bias) is noting how many Americans are involved if there's a plane crash or some other tragedy in a foreign country. Like, who cares? Except maybe a few idiots who get their "news" from Fox.