Journalism-ese that needs to die: A look at cliches, euphemisms and other dumb things we write

Journalism is a field that combines storytelling and word-smithing for the benefit of an engaged audience. It’s as simple and complicated as that. Within those stories, however, we tend to find that certain stupid phrases, euphemism, cliches and other awkward terminology tend to crop up in our copy.

After a headline managed to touch on two of my least-favorite euphemisms (“Diverse group” and “civic-minded citizens), I asked the hivemind to give me some of the worst our field has to offer in this regard. It didn’t take long for them to take me up on this:

I had a knock-down with an editor once about a phrase – “combed through the ashes” – he (they!) inserted in a lede. (“Combed through the debris” is disaster-coverage ubiquitous, too.) We always looked for a “pool of blood” in one competitor’s copy. The rumor was it was inserted into a strangling story once. Apocryphal. Also, I used to collect “ship of state” quotes from politicians. Reagan had quite a few.

Whenever I hear about “combing through” something, I go back to this scene:

In any case, here’s the list of what we came up with, why it’s bad form to use these things and how to say what you want without resorting to these terms:


Euphemistic language: My complaint against “diverse group” includes several beefs, starting with the idea that it’s exceptionally vague. What is “diverse” to one person isn’t necessarily “diverse” to someone else. The last time we all probably agreed on what accounted for a diverse group was while watching the cantina scene from “Star Wars:”

The primary problem is that the writer wants to say something like, “Look! It’s a group of people not totally comprised of rich, straight, white guys!” without actually saying exactly that. Usually describing a group gets you off the hook when it comes to vague descriptors, but that becomes a problem here, too. (Nobody is going to want to look like Archie Bunker describing a “balanced ticket” in politics.)

The solution comes in a few basic parts. First, figure out to what degree this descriptor adds something to the overall telling of the story in the most basic sense. In other words, why is it important to tell the readers that a group is “diverse?” What does the diversity aspect add to the telling of the story, especially at the point of using the descriptor? Second, if you figure this idea does matter, get more specific: HOW is the group diverse? Age? Race? Gender? Politics? Socio-economic status? Then, lay that out specifically and make it clear why that matters. A quote from the folks who put the group together might help here.

A journalism educator hated the term “inner-city” for similar veiled-language reasons, and a former journalist also took issue with “wide array of backgrounds.” In short, if you’re unsure what you’re saying, don’t say it. If you know what you want to say but you worry you’re going to sound like a dink if you say it directly, rethink what you’re trying to say and why you want to say it.


Poli Sci lingo:  The concern about “civic-minded citizens” goes along with “concerned citizens,” “taxpayers,” “interested parties” and other similar euphemisms for “people.”

(The “taxpayer” thing always bugged me after a friend of Amy’s had an interesting take on our lives. Amy had just taken a job at the U and her friend said, “It must be nice that you guys don’t have to pay taxes anymore.” Amy was stunned and asked what she meant. “Well, you and Vince both work for the government now, so you don’t have to pay taxes.” Um… No… Amy tried to explain how that wasn’t true, but the woman continued with “Oh, no, I know how this works! We’re the taxpayers and you’re the ‘takers!'” Good grief…)

I’m sure there is a better way of saying “people” without actually saying it, but this isn’t an Athenian democracy in which people in togas are making proclamations from the floor of a marble-lined acropolis. It’s a group of people in flannel who are trying to save the spotted owl or folks who think they pay too much already in taxes. Let’s not write them into a Shakespearean play.

Others had trouble with “traded barbs” as a euphemism for politicians who use the media to make fun of each other. (Unless, literally, they’re playing with Barbie dolls and they agree to exchange them. That might be the closest we get to a “traded barbs” moment. I would also pay to see that on C-SPAN.) For one former journalist, the phrase “ignited a firestorm of controversy” had her “up in arms.” As she put it:

NOTHING IGNITES A FIRESTORM OF CONTROVERSY. Somebody says something and some other people get pissed off, say who, say what, say why.

A journalism educator had similar problems with “doubled down” as a phrase used to describe when someone says something stupid and then reinforces his/her stupidity with further stupidity. The term actually comes from the game Blackjack, where a player can double a bet for a single card down with the hopes of attaining a nearly perfect hand.

I would be OK with the use of this term if we applied it accurately: Person says something stupid and “doubles down” on it. We provide that person with one, and only one, chance to make the winning point. When that doesn’t happen, we get to take all the money and ignore that person until next time.


Cop Talk: People aren’t “transported to a nearby medical facility” unless they’re in “Star Trek:

Speaking of medical problems, one of our hive had problems with “fatal injuries,” as she noted “you can’t be hurt when you’re dead.” (I had similar issues in thinking about when people report on thing like airplane crashes: “The crash left 83 people injured and 12 dead.” Do the dead count as injured as well, only, well, fatally injured? Or do the injured have to survive to be counted as injured?)

The police are always looking for a “person of interest,” which sounds like the worst way to describe yourself on Tinder.

In situations involving guns, a friend mentioned “assault weapon” as being a loaded (pardon the pun) term meant to vilify certain guns. It was like saying, “Big scary-looking gun thing!” I felt the same way about “assault rifle,” “the suspect is armed and dangerous,” “dangerous weapon” and other similar lines of thought. I can’t imagine non-dangerous weapons (“He attacked me with a Nerf knife!”) or armed and not-so-dangerous people who just robbed a store (“He was so friendly, I almost forgot he had a gun and was robbing me.”)


A parent’s worst nightmare: Worst means top-of-the-mark and singular, so unless you have something that applies to all parents and we can all agree on it, you can’t be right with this cliche. (Even if parents mostly agreed, there’s always that one idiot who would be able to say, “Actually, what would be WORSE would be…” like raising children is a game of “Would You Rather?”)

Completely destroyed: Destroyed means completely, so if it’s destroyed, it’s game over. Other redundancies include “extremely unique,” “armed gunman,” “deadly fatal accident” and “disappointing Cleveland Browns season.”

Packed courtroom: How much human density is required to move from just having a full gallery to a packed courtroom? Is there like a sweaty quotient or a “dude is leaning on me” vibe to help us distinguish these items? Unless you have everyone in the courtroom with a suitcase and plane tickets to Cabo, we can skip this one.

The White Stuff: A former journalist and current PR practitioner hates this one when it comes to snow. Trust me, there are more of these and none of them are any good.


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