If the earthquake doesn't kill you, the clichés will.

Media criticism.
June 1 2006 5:53 PM

Disaster by Numbers

If the earthquake doesn't kill you, the clichés will.

An 8.9 magnitude earthquake devastated Japan today, unleashing a tsunami that inundated the northern regions of the country. In addition to painful images from scenes of the disaster, one can expect to wade through the stale, unhelpful language of disaster journalism. In 2006, Jack Shafer lamented that cliché-laden news coverage obscured real suffering. His article is reprinted below.

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As I edited a ho-hum story by a reporter 20 years ago at a weekly newspaper, he defended the many clichés in his copy by arguing that they imparted basic truths about his subject. This defense could be extended to cliché-encrusted disaster coverage: If the sun is blazing and the widows are weeping and the town has been reduced to rubble, why pick nits about it? Indeed, not everybody constructs their best similes when strolling about the decomposing. The mot juste escapes many reporters as they pour important facts into their copy on deadline. And, not every reporter is sufficiently experienced to tell disaster gems from costume jewelry. But enough about reporters' needs. Journalism exists not for journalists but for readers and viewers. Every cliché invites them to believe that nothing new or important is happening and they can move along.

The final blame goes, as always, to editors, who do know their way around clichés, formulas, and templates, having lived them. I'm not suggesting that TV producers instruct correspondents to sing about tornadoes rather than describe and tape them, nor do I want reporters to write epic verse about the day's havoc in the name of originality (unless Michael Lind can take the assignment). Instead, I'd have editors and the copy desk study Cockburn's seven-page [More] classic and glue copies of it to reporters' foreheads as they ship out to catastrophe territory, at which point all would recite this motto: "Kill a cliché: Save a reader!"

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[More] magazine—not to be confused with Moremagazine, the Meredith Publications' good-life guide for women over 40—covered the journalism business back in the 1970s. Copies of [More] are so rare I couldn't find any on eBay and had to wind through a 10-pack of microfilm reels at a local college library to find the Cockburn piece. If you've got back copies and want to unload them, send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and name your price. Better yet, will the owner of the rights to [More] please post the issues on the Web? (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. No mail from earthlink.net addresses will receive responses unless you promise to turn off your anti-spam protection.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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