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Cliché Alert: Block that Metaphor!

March 24, 2004

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
National Public Radio

In February 2003, I noted a small but virulent outbreak of clichéd and shopworn phrases that seemed to infect some of the writing on NPR (See previous column.)

A year later, the epidemic seems to have been contained, and a similar examination of the writing indicates a much tighter, more "radiophonic" use of language. Obviously some prophylaxis has been applied.

But a few problematic, hackneyed and passive expressions still get past the editors with the effect of landing harshly upside the heads of the listeners. One NPR reporter complained a year ago that clichés are part of normal speech, so why avoid them? As I said back then, clichés make a report sound lazy, especially when the report may have been ready for a day or two before airtime. It is as though the writer and the editor (whose job should be to get clichés out of the script) are operating on automatic. And if the writer doesn't appear to care, why should the listener?

Some examples from Morning Edition on March 18:

  • A nationwide manhunt ensued...
  • The sense of relief was palpable...
  • ...breathing a sigh of relief...
  • ...they'll be sifting through the evidence...
  • U.S. armed forces are redoubling their efforts...
  • Minnesota, both sides charged, guns blazing into court...
  • But Miller says the buck always stops with the U.S. firm...

Fewer than the 15 or so I found at random in 2003, but still jarring all the same.

Most (but not all) of these are from reporters from member stations. It appears that the editors at NPR might be giving more care and attention to in-house reports and only a more cursory nod at stories from those who only file the occasional report. The difference sounds harsh to me. If so, it is unfair to the station reporters who should have the same due diligence visited upon them as do NPR reporters.

It is, of course, most unfair to the listeners who are required to hear the results of less-than-usual editing standards.

The Art of the 'Intro'

In going through the transcripts, I note that some of the story introductions, known as "intros," employ a passive construction. The offense for radio is the frequent use of compound-complex sentences where that passive tone most naturally occurs.

As we all remember (?) from our schooldays, a compound-complex sentence contains two separate actions. In written form, that's fine. But in its spoken form on the radio, the second action usually tends to be the more important -- and that is considered a "no-no" in broadcasting.

In news, it's called "burying the lede," also known as "backing into the story" -- a case of not leading or starting with the most important and interesting fact available.

Mrs. Thompson taught me English grammar in the 8th grade. She insisted that writing compound-complex sentences encouraged thinking. But she wasn't writing for the radio, and on NPR -- while it may be thoughtful to read -- it sounds both unnecessarily compound and complex.

Some examples from the same day's intros on Morning Edition:

  • While Baghdad reverberated with yesterday's bombing, Congress was revisiting...
  • As the anniversary approached, the House Republican leadership brought up a resolution...
  • With the swearing in of a new interim government, political stability is slowly returning to Haiti.
  • For the first time since federal judges ruled Microsoft an illegal monopoly in the late 1990s, Microsoft is back in a U.S. courtroom.

Whew! It's a wonder that Bob Edwards' lungs don't give out before the first comma.

Mrs. Thompson (may she rest in peace) notwithstanding, those sentences are distinctly "unradiophonic."

For example on the Haiti intro, the second clause should come first and be a sentence by itself. The first clause should be second and a stand-alone sentence. The new intro could read:

Political stability is slowly returning to Haiti. A new interim government was sworn in.

And a more useful sentence on the Microsoft story might be:

Microsoft is back in court for the first time in six years. That's when it was found guilty of monopoly practices.

Those are "radiophonic" sentences that, in my opinion, make for better intros. Short declarative sentences ease ear-strain and aid in comprehension. Crisper writing means getting to the report more quickly. That should be the aim of "intro" writing.

It's a lot better than it was a year ago. The process will be helped by a new guide for radio writing by and for NPR that will be finished later this year and, I hope, available on the NPR Web site. But some mornings, it sounds like NPR is written for readers, not for listeners.

Jenin: 'Largely Destroyed?'

In a March 16 report on a Palestinian film festival, correspondent Julie McCarthy referred to the Jenin refugee camp as "largely destroyed in Israel's incursion into the West Bank in 2002."

A number of listeners wrote to object to that description, including Nigel Paneth:

In fact, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, the area of destruction in the camp during the March [2002] incursion constituted considerably less than 10 percent of the camp's houses. Moreover, much of the destruction of buildings in the Jenin camp was a consequence of the booby trapping of houses by Palestinian terrorists, who bragged about their clever placement of bombs (24 Israeli soldiers were killed in that incursion) in interviews published later in the Egyptian press.

The listeners are correct and Morning Edition will air this correction later this week:

A correction: In a story about a Palestinian film festival last week, Julie McCarthy said that the Jenin refugee camp had been "largely destroyed" during an Israeli military action in 2002. A United Nations report noted that while the center of the camp had been "totally destroyed," the extent of the destruction for the camp as a whole was 10 percent.

Consistency in Reporting

Jerry Depew writes that NPR is ignoring its own reporting on the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq:

Today on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday (3/21), they repeated the number of wounded and injured in Iraq as 3,000+. That is the second time in a few days I heard the same number from NPR. But on Jan. 7, Daniel Zwerdling reported on the number of "evacuated" (wounded, injured, [suffering] mental illness) from Iraq by the Army alone as 9,000... Why has NPR ignored its own report?

Site? Sight? Cite? An Ad Homonym Discussion

Mike Barnas noted that an editor should also have been on duty with something on the NPR Web site:

While I have no problem with content, I do want to call someone's attention to an editorial oversight on the Web site in the headline "Visiting Democrats Site Problems in Iraq."

Having listened to the story, I believe the intention was "Visiting Democrats Cite (refer to) Problems in Iraq," although the headline "Visiting Dems Sight Problems in Iraq," (see problems invisible to Republicans) would not be inaccurate.

The headline as written, however, implies that the five senators in question brought problems to Iraq which would not have been there but for their visit. Is this subtle editorializing?

Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or at

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman