“Sadly, this rust isn’t limited to authoritarian regimes.”
Palestinian-American poet and journalist Sharif S. Elmusa has written, “Language under authoritarian regimes rusts, turns dull, loses its edge and luster.” Sadly, this rust isn’t limited to authoritarian regimes. The language of our Canadian media is also rusting—to the extent that whole segments of the machinery have fallen away and left Journalese.
Bluntly, we are losing the language we need to discuss the world. We need news coverage that expands our understanding of the world, news coverage that gives us space to consider our own experience alongside the vastly different experiences of others. A fully-functional metaphorical language is essential for this, yet our current mainstream media actively discourages such language.
Other countries, by which I largely mean other languages, have not seen as severe an impoverishment of their daily media news vocabulary; papers such as Le Monde in France continue to produce lengthy investigative pieces that challenge their readers (and those in power) with in-depth reporting and metaphorical language in ways that our two national papers consistently refuse to do. Beyond Europe, in the Arab-speaking world, poetry (and poetic language) hold an even stronger role in political commentary.
At the very beginning of the Arab Spring, in December 2010, Tunisians chanted a poem by Abul Qasim al-Shabbi (whose work is part of the Tunisian national anthem); soon afterwards, Egyptians turned to poetry by Amad Fu’ad Nigm (whole vernacular poems were originally written as a critique of Sadat.) Arab-speakers have a strong tradition of using poetic language for commentary on politics and news events. Back in 1956, poetry played a crucial role in commentating on Moroccan Independence; it has played a consistent historical role in Middle Eastern uprisings. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a line from Al-Shabbi’s poem, “If the people one day want life / fate will surely comply” became crucial during the Arab Spring, and was repeated and analysed in the opposition Arab news media.
My interest isn’t to examine the poems or the poets from these uprisings, but to wonder why poetic language is appropriate and even essential to political discussion, yet has fallen away from our own hands.
I’m interested in poetic language because I’m a poet—I’ve published three books of poetry—but I’ve also worked as a journalist for over 15 years, generally writing features about music, travel, and cities. I’ve used a vocabulary that veers between populist and poetic. For roughly a decade, I was based in Paris as a journalist. I wrote initially for Billboard magazine, covering the music industry full time (everything from French pop to World, from Carla Bruni to Dafar Youssef via Johnny Hallyday). Then I shifted gears into travel journalism, writing about Paris for various English-language guidebooks and for the Life and Travel sections of North American newspapers.
Whatever I write, I conform to a kind of style guide—whether overtly defined or merely an interior idea of what might be appropriate for the given outlet. If I’m writing a poem, I use, or at least consider using, a certain kind of heightened poetic language. If I’m writing a news article for a media outlet, I use a different kind of language, because that’s what the editor demands. Let’s call this language Basic Journalese.
À cause de Basic Journalese
Writing about music and travel in Basic Journalese sometimes seems a bit … well … let me quote novelist (and former CNN journalist) Sparkle Hayter: “Between 9-11, Al Qaeda, Iraq, and an apocalyptic White House, the events of my life in Paris hardly seemed worth recording. While my friends were walking through minefields and DMZs to report the news, work for peace or bring succor to the suffering, I was in Paris, doing work that didn’t matter one whit in the grand scheme of things in a place that seemed about as real as Brigadoon.”
I included Hayter’s lines as the opening to my second book of poetry, A Bad Year for Journalists, where I tried to reconcile the hard news journalism with my fluff life in music reporting. People need entertainment, distraction, beauty; reporting on music and the beautiful places of the globe serves to engage people in our world. And I enjoy it. But we also need thoughtful, challenging reporting about hard news events—serious coverage of the darker places in our landscape. Lately, this seems increasingly difficult to find, couched in anything but the most simplistic syntax, as our allowed language shrinks in the mainstream North American daily media.
Travel writer and former hard-news journalist extraordinaire Jan Morris has written: “In Khartoum once a Sudanese Minister of National Guidance, soon to be shot for mis-directing the nation, offered a succinct definition of my duties as a correspondent. They were, he said, to produce ‘thrilling, attractive and good news, coinciding where possible with the truth.’”
In Canada, it seems the Sudanese Minister’s dictum has been taken a little too much to heart by our media outlets. As viewers and readers, we are consistently bombarded with the thrilling and terrifying, rather than with long-term analysis. The most interesting quality of poetic language is that it allows us to talk about complex issues using the full breadth of vocabulary and metaphor offered by our pack-rat English language. But current Basic Journalese actively encourages us to dumb down our words. Critical complexity and enhanced discussion is explicitly not our goal as journalists these days—see further, the latest Daily Show spoof of American television’s simplification of the news, “Is it a GOOD thing or a BAD thing?”
You might argue that poetry is “supposed” to be poetic, whereas journalism is not. Define poetic—the use of metaphor? Overall, the level of language used in Canadian mainstream journalism has dropped over time—not only do articles and features now tend to be radically shorter than they used to be, but the expectations of prior knowledge in the audience have greatly been reduced. It becomes ever-more-challenging to use metaphoric concepts when Basic Journalese demands we limit historical and global references in our work.
Several commentators during the Egypt revolution of 2011 somewhat glibly pointed out that poetry is well-suited to revolutions: it is easier to remember, easier to chant, than political ideologies. Poetry is also designed for the voice—this is especially the case for traditional poetic forms which are sung or chanted. But poetic language moved from the street into the reports about the revolution. It forced itself into foreign coverage of the events.
So why aren’t we journalists in Canada and the US more inclined to use, or at least consider, poetic language over Basic Journalese? I suspect we’re too willing to stick with our editors’ ever-shifting rule book, dictated by “the market” where demand requires increasingly shortened sentences for our supposed micro-attention-spans. We need to make a living, after all, so we do what we’re told. And the market demands a properly-groomed audience for its commercials—an audience willing to absorb and believe in the advertising, undistracted by complex metaphorical language focused on our policies and governments.
As George Orwell knew too well, language is a tricky beast. If we convince ourselves that poetic language has no news-worthy purpose, that to be honest and truthful we must always use “simple” Basic Journalese, then we are willfully silencing ourselves. Because language is never actually simple, no matter how short our words. Our language is being pared down in order to be whittled to a point—and that point is to keep us ill-informed. As journalists, we have accepted this rusty impoverishment. We are willing to pretend that complex metaphors, educated vocabulary, and intellectual rigour are out of place in our language, while elsewhere in the world, people embrace poetry to describe and interpret the volatile complexities of their situation.
Sounds like a good reason to read some poetry, doesn’t it?
Journalese vs. Poetic Language first appeared on The Town Crier on December 7, 2013 under the title The News vs. Poetic Language.
Lisa Pasold is a poet, novelist and journalist. Her collection, Any Bright Horse, was reviewed in Issue XXI of The Puritan, and her poem, “The Line at the Ambassador Bridge,” appeared in Issue XXIV, as part of a special supplement on the US-Canadian border.