Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


News Talk: How To Be A Language Savvy News Consumer

Colleen Cotter

News TalkFair, balanced, unbiased, impartial. Journalism, in theory and by definition, hinges on an ideal of neutrality, an expectation of the direct presentation of facts and findings. Yet the process of news-making is a constant ebb and flow of editorialization. From the selection to the construction of a story, editors and journalists invariably serve as a filter – controlling everything we read, see, and hear.

Today, Colleen Cotter dissects the inner workings of the media to define the processes and practices that go into crafting our understanding of the day’s events.


All professions have them: routines of interacting and communicating that become normalized. That become part of the everyday routine of doing business. A pilot’s FAA-mandated cockpit routine revolves around safety talk. A Disneyland employee uses the specified vocabulary of the Magic Kingdom to enhance the visitor experience. A police officer’s question-asking style leads to “just the facts, ma’am” while the therapist’s are more personal.

So it goes with news language. News language isn’t about “correctness” as such, although that’s part of the picture. It can also tell you a lot about what goes on behind the scenes in a newsroom, how reporters and editors think about things, and what the news conventions are.

To become a language-savvy news consumer, you have to think both small (words and patterns) and big (culture and concept). Here are some suggestions:

look for patterns
Anyone can complain about news coverage, or focus on a hot-button word here or a misplaced modifier there. Another approach is to notice language patterns: sentence length, word choice, transitions, quotation and attribution routines, writing style, the reporting verb (“said”), number of sources, courtesy titles, standard language vs. colloquial usage, capitalization… That’s just for starters.

• know your news values
Get inside the news reporter’s head and think ‘important’ and ‘prominent’ and ‘unusual’ – and how that that might influence the focus or angle of the story, the order of information, placement (first, top, linked), and why stuff gets left out or minimized. Time and space has an impact, too.

• notice bylines
Become familiar with the byline over time and you’ll get a sense of the person’s approach to a topic (whether it’s movies or politics).

• think local
People inside the news biz talk all the time about making news relevant (shoe-leather reporters on behalf of their craft; corner-office senior editors on behalf of the bottom line). Notice how a national story gets illustrated by something happening next door. Or read about your school’s science and art fair. Or find out that someone the town over who you run into at the library or gas station does lots of volunteering. Or learn how crime/industry/innovation/poverty/philanthropy exists on your doorstep. Or that your neighbor’s barn is now a movie set. Or a new museum. Or a fire department training structure.

• ask a reporter
They’ll tell you that “to be sure” in a news story signals the opposing viewpoint – one they don’t believe, or that “centers around” should be “revolves around,” or that not saying something is saying something. (Up to you to fill in the blank.) In short: their life revolves around language and how to use it to communicate with others, responsibly if possible. They might anguish more about a split infinitive than the impact of a label, but then, that’s what you’ll find out if you ask.

• don’t forget anniversaries
A lot of life revolves around our everyday celebrations and commemorations. Notice how “anniversary” stories come up, when they do, what they commemorate, and how they are constructed. In the same vein, look at obituaries. And notice the holiday features. Or the Black Friday shopping stories. Or the “Christmas came early” leads. The values of our culture get reported alongside the news.Newspapers

• look at leads
If poet William Wordsworth had been a reporter, he would have appreciated the pleasures of writing a lead, of finding worlds within that opening paragraph instead of his “grain of sand.” The news lead has to convey so much in so little. The feature lead has to draw a reader in (shout, whisper, cajole, carol, encourage, order, humor, describe, paint, entice). Not all leads are Wordsworthian (or word-worthy?) but check ‘em out.

• who’s that?
Attributing information to a source seems so obvious, but it’s not done the same way the world over. Even on U.S. soil, some news outlets are more conscientious than others, but overall it’s a practice that makes American journalism unique. Notice “according to” and “said/says” patterns.

Although unnamed sources are frowned upon, you get them, in Associated Press stories, for instance, with qualifiers: “according to people familiar with the selection process,” “according to an official who is not authorized to speak publicly,” “according to a source familiar with X who was not authorized to comment publicly,” “according to a federal official briefed on the investigation.” Savvy news consumers with an understanding of how public institutions work can often figure out who the source is.

• question labels
I loved reading the syndicated Sidney J. Harris column in my hometown paper –The (Appleton, Wis.) Post-Crescent – when I was growing up in the ’70s. It got me thinking about language, its complexity and how perspectives vary. Harris’s examples ran like this: I’m careful, you’re meticulous and he’s fussy; I’m concerned, you’re angry and she’s going postal. It’s part of the evolving dynamic behind labels, which both news consumers and news practitioners construct: Muslim/Islamist, immigrant/ex-pat, feminist/feminazi, SoCool/NoCool (full disclosure: I’m a former Northern Californian and hella proud of that).

• block that metaphor
Or at least pay attention to it. Metaphors aren’t just about figurative language, but about how we conceptualize important issues. Something looking “up” is good. “Downward trends” generally aren’t. Life is a “journey.” A “war” on drugs leads to one set of outcomes and not another. Calling something “World War III” both turns up the volume and evokes something big. Depending on the context it’s sobering or a “tempest in teapot.”

• and last…
Sometimes a quote is just a quote, and a photo just a photo. And a cigar just a cigar.

About The Author

Colleen Cotter

Colleen Cotter is a a scholar of linguistics, former news reporter and editor, and author of News Talk: Investigating the Language of Journalism (2010). Colleen Cotter is a senior ...

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