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Commentary: Broadcast cliches

By Paula LaRocque, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Both print and broadcast journalists face the problem of clich s or hackneyed expression, but the problem is more acute for broadcasters because they can't always speak from a script - which offers the luxury of a rough draft.

Even broadcasters who usually work from a script must sometimes speak off-the-cuff, a situation that lays bare the vocabulary. Is it fresh or stale? Original or trite? Ad libbing immediately exposes dependence upon journalese. I'm talking about such stock expressions as defining moment, worst-case scenario, cautiously optimistic, firestorm of criticism, heated debate, stunning victory, staggering defeat. And the list goes on: chilling effect, sea change, ground swell, surprise move, bizarre twist, litany, laundry list.

Adjectives are equally exhausted in journalese: unprecedented, burgeoning, beleaguered, embattled. And so are verbs: resonate, spawn, spark, spur, trigger, target, decimate, escalate, spiral, launch, unleash.

At the moment, the most overused expression in broadcast news may be getting or having a "sense of." Consider this exchange between an anchor and a reporter:

Here's the anchor: "Is it your sense that their outrage is genuine? I mean, that they had no, uh, no...sense that this spying was going on domestically?

Here's the reporter: "No. I mean yes. That's my, uh, sense of it."

We can hear that anchor struggling not to repeat the word "sense." Likewise, we can hear the reporter's discomfort with saying it yet a third time in such a brief exchange.

Dictionaries offer this meaning of the noun "sense" for such a context: a feeling, impression, or perception through the senses, as in a sense of warmth; or a generalized feeling, awareness, or realization, such as a sense of longing. So, getting a "sense of" is a flawed choice for contexts that demand concreteness or refer to factual matters such as numbers or amounts. Despite that, here are the sorts of questions we hear on radio and TV: "Do you have any sense of how many were killed?" "Did you get a sense of how much this program would cost?" "Can you give us a sense of how the administration might react?"

Could those questions be more gracefully and credibly put? Yes, and we don't have to rely on our senses to find them. Do you know how many were killed? Did they say how much it would cost? How might the administration react?

Are there successful "sense of" constructions? Sure. Here's one: "When interviewing the candidates, did you get a sense of hostility or distrust?" Here the abstract "did you get a sense of" is useful: The reporter is being asked if he could "read" the candidates' unspoken attitudes through his senses. It's a valuable and aptly put question that could yield an interesting and insightful answer.

But the overused "sense of" expression should be reserved for when it best applies. Throughout history, the memorable and credible communicator has chosen plain talk over faddish terms. So should journalists.

Paula LaRocque is a former editor and writing coach for the Dallas Morning News and the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.