THE BLOG

The Vagaries of the News Lexicon

25/11/2015 13:13 GMT | Updated 24/11/2016 10:12 GMT

On a recent episode of Radio 4's excellent Media Show, the coverage of the Paris attacks was discussed and the use of the word terror. It was interesting to hear how the BBC approaches the use of the word and its advice to journalists. Caution is advised against describing something as a terror attack unless that is attributed, although a total ban on its use in news scripts does not exist. It highlights how news language is important. It may seem obvious to a viewer or listener that the Paris attacks were 'terror' related but news writers have to be careful in making that judgement.

One of the basic principles for a journalist to learn early on is that you should try and see both sides to a story and remain neutral. It is a lot harder than you might think. Playing devil's advocate isn't easy if you can't see another side to the discussion. But sometimes you may not realise as a journalist that simple news language can lead your scripts to have bias that was unintended.

There has been a lot of coverage in the news recently about Trident. How often do you hear or read Trident described as Britain's nuclear deterrent? I saw and heard it a number of times. The BBC used that in a strap for the story and The Times also used it. In fact, it is almost always described as such. But describing it as a deterrent is subjective. Some believe nuclear weapons are not a deterrent. Using the government language for it - supports their claim. Therefore your reporting is biased. It was noticeable that a text alert relating to Trident from The Guardian, described it as a nuclear programme.

This is where the news lexicon becomes lazy and cliches stick. My guess is that no one writing about Trident and describing it as the nuclear deterrent had an agenda. It's just how news people describe it. What you should say is Britain's nuclear weapons system. That is fact and not subjective.

I am sure there are many more examples where lazy news writing can make the same kind of error. Pro-Russian rebels for example, when doing the Ukraine story. It's used as a sweeping statement for forces that may or may not be aligned with Moscow. Jeremy Corbyn was constantly described as left wing during the Labour leadership contest, as if it was some kind of insult. Not wrong to say he was on the left side of the party, but were the other contenders always labelled in such a lazy way?

It is all too easy in a busy newsroom to slip into cliche and start dipping into regular news language but sometimes it pays to take a step back and have a think about what you are writing. That is the true test of being a good journalist.