Shock-horror plunge hits ailing journalistTuesday Jul 08, 2008.
I was probably guilty of this as a reporter myself, but the hype in the first two paragraphs of a recent story on property prices exemplifies the sins of journalese.
THE ailing South African residential property market was hit by more bad news yesterday, with new figures showing real house prices took their biggest plunge in 15 years in May.
With no quick end in sight to rocketing inflation and interest rates that have knocked the economy, struggling homeowners can expect things to get worse before they get better.
According to the latest Absa house price index, real house prices in the middle segment of the market dropped 6,3% year on year in May, the largest drop since real house prices dropped 7,4% year on year in April 1993.
Real house prices strip out the effect of inflation — which is significant as this stands at about 11% now.
The highlighted phrases are a good example of journalese, where prices don’t “rise” or “fall” but “rocket” or “plunge”, markets are “ailing” and homeowners “struggling”.
As a young reporter I would have been mesmerised by this kind of Lego-set language. I would have thought it marked my writing as “real” journalism.
To give the reporter his due, he was quite rightly avoiding starting the story with boring figures, and to say that the fall is the biggest in 15 years is perfectly legitimate.
But the addition of adjectives like ailing creates an artificial sense of importance.
When it comes to business reporting why not let the figures speak for themselves, even if you don’t start the story with them?
e.g. House prices, after adjusting for inflation, had their biggest fall in 15 years in May.
You could add, “Homeowners, according to one economist, can expect things to get worse before they get better.”
But if you read the report only one economist said this, though he is the reputable and knowledgeable property economist Erwin Rode. He forecast a decline of 10% by the middle of next year from the beginning of this year.
The Absa economist forecast a decline for the whole year of around 6% in real terms.
So the property market is declining, but the article itself contains the information that it is nowhere near as dramatic as the declines in house prices in the past.
Nevertheless, the 6,3% drop is nowhere near the huge plunge of 22% year on year recorded in June 1985.
Notice that having used the word “plunge”, the reporter then has to describe 22% as a “huge plunge”. What words are left when the decline is 90%?
The trouble with journalese is that it makes readers cynical and blunts them to real news. The Constitutional Court is truly one of the cornerstones of the edifice which is our new democracy. If everything is a crisis, when this institution comes under attack, as it has recently, what do you call that?
This blog post first appeared on the New Media Lab of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.