Updated Sept. 26, 2012: Why did the writer use that word? Why did the cable crew emphasize that angle over another? Why is that story played where it is? If you’re a journalist, you can figure out what they were thinking, but if you’re not, much of journalism can look like a Pollock painting.
From time to time, I’m rolling out the Reader’s Guide to Journalists, so that one day, when we’ve all been replaced by social media and cable gossip, readers can rise up and begin cloning real, honest-to-God journalists.
From my journalist and ex-journalist friends, I solicit further rules, for which — observing one of the Rules — you’ll get proper credit. If we can crowdsource this, we might be able to help confused readers and viewers of the distant future revive our craft.
Herewith is the Reader’s Guide to Journalists, a continuing series:
Rule No. 1: People we dislike give “rambling” statements and answers; people we like give “wide-ranging” or “comprehensive” statements and answers.
Rule No. 2: We like to use unnecessarily long, seemingly formal versions of common words so our stories sound more important. People always “attempt” to do something; they never “try” to do it. And they always “receive” something; they never “get” it. In this, we are much like police officers (“The subject proceeded on foot …”).
Rule No. 3: People we like decline to comment; people we dislike refuse to comment.
Rule No. 4: We hate to use the word “that,” even when it is needed to make a sentence clear. This is because we were told that it was bad by a journalism school professor who last wrote a story back when “that” counted as four extra characters in the telegraph bill.
Rule No. 5: In fact, no, we didn’t study statistics in college.
Rule No. 6: All editors are mindless creativity-killing drones until we join the desk ourselves. Then all writers become sloppy prima donnas who won’t answer their damn phones on deadline.
Rule No. 7: We believe that if both sides criticize us, we’ve prepared an impartial, well-balanced report, even if both sides are criticizing us because we got it all wrong.
Rule No. 8: The headline is always someone else’s fault.
Rule No. 9: We correct all mistakes, unless they’re important.
Rule No. 10: Just because you couldn’t find the story on the home page at the moment you decided to check the news doesn’t mean we didn’t cover it.
Rule No. 11: One occurrence is interesting; two are an oddity; three are a front-page trend.
Rule No. 12: We used to write in a dry, uptight style because we hoped The New York Times would hire us. Now we
right write in a dry, uptight style because we hope the Huffington Post will think it’s important and link to us. (Thanks to Daniel Victor for spotting the typo.)
Rule No. 13: We insist that there are always two sides to every story, even when there aren’t. We would totally write “But Mr. Hitler insisted …” with a straight face.
Rule No. 14: We always treat our sources with respect, unless they’re Southern, in which case their tobacco and beer choices must be noted and their quotations must be rendered in a colorful way. This is because we believe Southerners are the only Americans who smoke, drink, and drop the final g when talkin’.
Rule No. 15: We write in short paragraphs (journalism school rule: no ledes of more than 33 words) because we assume readers share our short attention spans.
Rule No. 16: We like to use modifiers like “key” and “major” and “significant” because it means we don’t have to work as hard to make the importance of the subject clear from the context.
Rule No. 17: We never use semicolons; this is because editors and journalism school teachers think they’re highfalutin.
Rule No. 18: “Time dilation” (n): The slowing of the clock in the period between turning in a story and getting the edits.
Rule No. 19: If the slug or the budgetline includes the word “adorable,” it probably isn’t news.
Rule No. 20: When we write that someone is “controversial,” we mean we believe he’s up to something but we can’t print it. (suggested by Lex Alexander)
Rule No. 21: The word “alleged” has magical, lawyer-killing powers.
Rule No. 22: All female entertainment figures with short hair are perky.
Rule No. 23: All heart attacks are “massive.”
Rule No. 24: All disputes are “controversies.” They come in “firestorms.”
Rule No. 25: When we say something “comes in the wake of” something else, we mean they’re related, but we can’t prove it.
Rule No. 26: The only acceptable second reference for “helicopter” is “chopper.”
Rule No. 27: Jobs are never lost. They’re “axed.”
Rule No. 28: If the headline is in the form of a question, the answer is “yes.”
Rule No. 29: People don’t “say” anything. They “reveal,” “disclose” or “charge” it.
Rule No. 30: Everyone who complains “the media” aren’t reporting it originally heard about it from some part of “the media.”
Rule No. 31: Something happens for the first time “in recent memory” when we don’t want to look it up. (suggested by Andy Bechtel)
Rule No. 32: An “exclusive” interview is one that is happening now, because the talkative subject can’t be in two places at the same time.
Rule No. 33: A “scoop” is when we add a counterintuitive observation to the facts someone else unearthed.