Readers, Writers, Texts

‘Journalese’: the language of newspaper writing

“Sensational stories are the junk food of our news diet… You know it’s bad for you but it’s delicious.”

Tony Rogers, former journalist and media writer
This montage, available at Media Literacy and made by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, draws attention to the trend for sensationalism in the American news media.

The headline ‘Man Bites Dog’ is a classic journalistic aphorism that expresses the difference between an everyday event and one that is newsworthy. Frank O’Brien, in his history of the New York Sun (1833 – 1918) , first promulgated the verity said by editor John Bogart that dogs bite men often and we needn’t get excited about it – but that when a man bites a dog – that is news.

Tabloid Journalism is a type of journalism which is often discounted by those who prefer “true journalism.” Tabloid journalism tend to focus on more sensational or extreme topics such as celebrity gossip, outrageous crime, seemingly impossible events (such as the possibility of extra-terrestrials) or other sensational stories. Tabloid papers take the mantra of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ extremely seriously. Today, tabloid journalism is particularly strong in anglophone cultures such as the UK and the US. These papers are easily recognisable by the vivid red mastheads – in fact, in the UK tabloid papers such as the Sun, the Mirror and the (now discontinued) News of the World are also known as red-tops. Usually placed at shop checkout counters, many give these papers very little credibility. However, there is a huge market for ‘infotainment’ and advertisers have taken advantage of the circulation, making this business highly lucrative – and making the tabloid press more influential than you might like to believe.

You have seen how the selection of stories can be influenced by the institutions of production and newsworthiness criteria. Now it is time to examine how conventional uses of journalistic language affects the presentation of news stories. The most important concepts in this section are emotive languageeuphemism and vague language and you will also learn about the distinctions between broadsheet and tabloid journalism. Read the following pieces to clarify what these terms all mean, learn how to both recognise them and to consider their effects:

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging text, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

Class Activity: sleaze and sensationalism

In the world of print journalism, the two most widely seen formats for newspapers are broadsheet and tabloid. Broadsheet newspapers appeared in Britain in the 18th century when the government taxed newspapers based on their number of pages. By increasing the size of the pages, newspapers could reduce the number of sheets in each edition – an ingenious way to lessen the amount of tax they had to pay!  

One of the first tabloids in the U.S. was The New York Sun, started in 1833. It cost only a penny and was easy to carry – the idea of making a newspaper smaller and more convenient appealed to the working class who had to carry the newspaper to work. Early tabloids were more irreverent in their writing style than their broadsheet brethren, and crime reporting combined with lurid illustrations were a hit with readers. This trend continues today: a broadsheet will refer to a police officer, while a tabloid might use the term cop. And while a broadsheet might use up precious column inches on serious news, a tabloid likes to target sensational stories or celebrity gossip, with a penchant for sleaze, sordid sex, and tales of immorality, perversion and crime.

Learning the differences between broadsheets and tabloids is the basis of this sequence of lessons, which will help you understand how newspaper writers and editors can use language in particular ways to achieve different effects – and even alter the meaning of an identical story or event printed in the news.

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. Tony Rogers writes about sensationalism from an interesting viewpoint: he doesn’t think it’s all bad. What do you think about this idea? What’s good about sensational news reporting?
  2. Does the news reflect an accurate image of society? If you were an alien who could only study human societies using news broadcasts that had leaked across the cosmos, what conclusions would you draw about life on Earth?
  3. No journalist likes to be accused of bias as reporting the truth is one of journalisms axiomatic principles – but is truly impartial news reporting possible? Discuss the reasons why total objectivity might be difficult to achieve.

Learner Portfolio

Write a tabloid news article that reports (in a biased and sensational way) on an event from one of your literary texts. Include:

  • A headline (bonus points for slammers, alliterating or punning headlines);
  • An image that presents your subject in either a favourable or unfavourable light, depending on the angle of your story;
  • Embedded interviews and comments from various sources;
  • Sensational and dramatic language, employing the techniques you have learned in this section of the course.

Here are a couple of tabloid articles written by students in response to this prompt: one about breaking news in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and the other responding to gossip from the High Plateau in Broken April.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: tabloid and broadsheet newspaper reports

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are articles that expose the role of bias in news stories, whether tabloid or broadsheet. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of Newspaper Reports and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

key features of news reports
  • Headline: the choice of words in a headline is essential to the tone and angle of the story. There are many techniques involved in creating headlines and you should definitely learn: slammer; pun; alliteration; elliptical headlines (which only include the keywords).
  • Visuals: all newspapers make use of photographs to accompany stories. Tabloid papers are dominated by images while broadsheet papers tend to use smaller photographs. Look out for pictures of people’s faces, which reveal emotion and create bias.
  • Copy: the main text of the article. Features you should be on the look out for are: sensationalism; vague language; emotive language and euphemism.
  • Embedded interviews: you can expect to find witness recounts, expert opinions and statements from authority figures in almost all newspaper reports.
  • Bias: all kinds of bias exist in newspaper reports, from selection bias (the choice of what content to include and what to exclude) to name-calling, to the use of certain facts and statistics and more.
  • Figurative Language: news reports are a rich source of metaphor, simile, hyperbole, and exaggeration, often distorting reality in some way.

Body of Work: The ‘Difficult Duchess’

In 2016, Prince Harry, a member of the British Royal family, was introduced to Meghan Markle, an American actress, and a modern day romantic fairy tale began. Months after that initial London meeting, the country’s press – including the infamous tabloid redtops – managed to get news of their blossoming romance. The Sunday Express was the first paper to reveal the 36-year-old was Prince Harry’s new girlfriend with the news featuring on the front page.

In September, the couple made their first public appearance at the Invictus Games, an international sporting event set up by Harry for injured soldiers. Crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of the couple strolling hand-in-hand and the global press rushed to capture the moment. In the weeks and months after the story broke, the Royal Romance gripped the nation – and readers in other countries too, who could follow the news story online. Press intrusion began to become more and more significant. Meghan was followed shopping in London and stories began to break about her family relationships, mixed race heritage, pictures posted online, and her previous marriage to Trevor Engleson which ended in divorce in 2013.

In November 2016, the prince officially confirmed he was dating the US actress. In a statement from Kensington Palace, he also took the opportunity to condemn Meghan’s treatment by the press. He referred to a “smear” on the front page of a national newspaper, racial undertones in comment pieces and “outright sexism and racism” from online trolls. Eventually, the two quit the UK and moved to America, where they gave a forthright interview with Opera Winfrey. Many have continued to speculate that the media’s general bias against her comes from resistance to accepting a mixed-race American into what upper-class white British people feel is an exclusive cultural institution like the British royals.

Here you can find a selection of news stories about Meghan Markle and her relationship with Prince Harry to study as a Body of Work. Because a non-literary Body of Work must consist of texts by the same author, all the stories have come from The Sun newspaper, a notorious British tabloid redtop. You can study these articles to discover the way supposedly factual news reporting can be biased towards or against an individual. You might like to trace how the stories became more and more negative over time, keep track of the various names and labels used to describe Meagan, analyse the headlines, notice the institutional voices who are recruited to lead your opinion about Meagan and compare the way the press treats her to the way it treats, for example, Harry in the same stories. Should you wish to find more evidence, you can find over 300 pages (!) of articles, photographs and videos by directly visiting the Sun Online and searching for ‘Meghan Markle‘.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

An extract from this Body of Work would make an ideal text to discuss in your Individual Oral activity. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry:  Power, Politics and Justice
  • Global Issue: The creation of bias in texts
  • Rationale:

The way texts are written and constructed in order to lead your opinion about a person or event would make an interesting subject for your Individual Oral talk. Many literary works are guided by the author’s intention, and you can examine the balanced or bias presentation of people or events in literature as well as non-literary Body of Works.

  • Field of Inquiry:  Culture, Community and Identity
  • Global Issue: A woman’s place
  • Rationale:

As you read the ‘Difficult Duchess’ collection of news articles, a suspicion starts to grow that there may be an agenda against Meghan Markle. The reports can be quite vicious; from even the first couple of articles you can find snide comments about the way she behaves, her past, and whether she has ulterior motives. You could legitimately ask whether she has been given a fair chance – and whether the writers feel that she needs to be put back in her place.

possible liteary pairings
  • George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion – this could be a natural pairing for the ‘Difficult Duchess’ body of work, as Liza is a prototypical Meghan, being asked to fit into an exclusive cultural upper-class family, and being constantly upbraided for her appearance, speech, habits and viewpoints. Until, that is, she finds it in her to fight back.
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – another ideal companion text for this activity might be this play. Long thought of as a ‘problem play’ because of its bias and stereotypical presentation of Jewish people, you might like to present your ideas as to whether the depiction of Shylock leads your opinion in the same way the Sun does with Meghan Markle.
  • Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife – this feels like an ideal pairing. Duffy’s intention is to give voices to silenced or marginalised women and – while it would be hard to argue Meghan Markle has been marginalised – although plenty of people are invited to speak about her in this Body of Work, one voice is conspicuously missing: her own.
  • Ismail Kadare’s Broken April – like Meghan, Diana is defined by others who see her in a certain way. Whether it’s Mark Ukacierra, who despises her on sight, the local people on the rrafsh who are unused to seeing a woman so free, or even Bessian, her own husband, who doesn’t seem able to recognise Diana’s true thoughts and feelings.
  • Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber – in the same way that the media try to define Meghan Markle’s identity to suit their own agenda, so too does the Marquis attempt to remake his young wife in his own image.
  • Han Kang’s The Vegetarian – when Yeong-hye decides to give up eating meat, she very quickly realises that to go against Korean social convention makes her an enemy to her family, husband and friends. Is it her diet that offends them – or the fact that she is trying to assert her autonomy in a patriarchal society? Importantly, her story is recounted through the perspectives of others, and only rarely do we hear her own voice.
  • Shen Congwen’s Border Town – as Cuicui grows older, her grandfather decides it’s time for her to be married. But how much say does she have in her own future? This could be an interesting choice of literary work to combine with the ‘Difficult Duchess’ news reports.
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie – investigating Luo’s attitude towards his new girlfriend reveals some surprising insights. He never really seems to be satisfied by her, can be a bit condescending, and even resents her taking matters into her own hands at the end of the novel.

Wider Reading and Research

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