All you need to make a journalist is pressure and time.
Those same elements can disrupt a writer. Under pressure and no longer feeling the same need to impress someone can make even the most capable of scribes turn a phrase that shouldn’t be turned anymore.
Hell, I may be one cliche away from a lifetime achievement award myself. Still, it’s worth noting a few that just shouldn’t be done anymore, and other mistakes that are so commonplace they themselves have become something of a cliche:
- What: Adding -gate to the end of any noun referencing a controversy
How To: Take something that happened and add the suffix ‘gate’ to it, like all of this.
Crime: Yawn. The first couple decades after Watergate kept this fresh, but I think that period is past
- What: Just another day on the job
How To: Lede with something sensational and transition to an over simplified or surprise relationship by vocation or involved person.
Crime: It’s too easy and so now too frequently-used way to hinge from a soft lede to a nut graf.
Examples: “Just another day in the life of a ballerina,” I wrote for the Inquirer.
- Example: Saving Lives one Haircut at a Time
Culprit: NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams (even if he’s one of my favorite journalists) among others
How To: Take a mundane, obscure or seemingly unrelated subject that is somewhat related to something more grandiose — e.g. saving lives, making a difference, affecting the world, etc. –and give a sense of the impact growing with a phrase like the most common, “one at a time”
Crime: It’s simply a tired attempt at irony, suggesting the large degree something is, in this example how simple, yet beneficial this service is. Of course, this segment was part of the Nightly News’s Making a Difference segment, too.
Other examples: Saving animals one at a time; Solving future problems one at a time;
- What: Butchering of the use of “literally”
Crime: Seeing the word as an exclamation point, not what it is, a tool to cut through any sarcasm or hyperbole to suggest that, no, really, what I just wrote actually happened
Example: “Think riding shotgun, literally,” Smerconish writes, talking about a student riding along with a cop. I suppose because cops carry guns, but, no, the student is riding on a shotgun so, of course, in no way is it literal.
Culprit: Michael Smerconish, among others
- What: Overdone foreign phrases
How To: Don’t open up a foreign phrase book, but rather rack your head for the only foreign phrases you already know and think most readers will too. It’s the struggle between pushing your reading, without losing him or seeming pompous.
Crime: Some recognizable foreign phrase — almost always Latin, French or another European language — can be a fine way to give your story a cosmopolitan feel when it needs it, but the variety of those phrases has become stodgy.
Example: Carpe diem
Culprit: Sacramento Bee, and of course it’s in a graduation story. Bah. Here’s another.
Other examples: C’est la vie; Sacre bleu among others
- Example: Awkwardly referencing online sources
Culprit: most old media
How To: Take seriously something from the Web that isn’t really meant to be that serious
Crimes: Sounding dated, inauthentic
Examples: That recent display of high-powered journalists using Wikipedia without a second source; The Urban Dictionary, even if it was called “snide” and used by Tom Ferrick, whom I call one of the best Philly newspaper columnists
There are some journalism cliches that have become so overdone that criticizing them seem cliche itself. I recently wrote about a friend who set off the Zunegate scandal, but can’t we drop the -gate suffix for whenever that was born of Watergate and surfaces whenever a one or two-syllable controversy comes about?
I feel like I could go one with things like asking the reader a question (something else I’ve done) even when you can almost always rewrite to put it in your own voice.
But there are also so many cliches that vary by city and region. Some comparisons and phrases have become so tired in some area’s that they just shouldn’t be used anymore.
Philadelphia newspaper cliches
- It’d have to be one Hell of a good reason to put cheesesteak in a lede in Philadelphia ever again. I cringe every time the steak puns come out from national media when some Philly story goes big.
- If something is broken or damaged or, God forbid cracked, don’t reference the Liberty Bell. Don’t do it.
- Rocky came out in 1976. If you need an allusion to boxing or overcoming or an underdog, please go elsewhere.
- I am irked by all those Italian-American and Mafia stereotypes when South Philly crime or corruption makes news. New episodes of the Sopranos haven’t been on TV for years, and it took place in North Jersey anyway, but those references still make it in Philly print today. I’ll also add that while Joey Bagadonuts and Badda bing badda boom is supposed to be borne of Philly comedian Dom Irrera, I could live without reading those and Fugghedabouit used as an easy shorthand for a writer to give voice to an otherwise dead story.
What other media cliches are you tired of? They can be regional or national. Any you’ve done that you regret or defend?