M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

The Reader’s Guide to Journalists

with 37 comments

Why did the writer use that word? Why did the cable crew emphasize that angle over another? Why is that story played where it is? If you’re a journalist, you can figure out what they were thinking, but if you’re not, much of journalism can look like a Pollock painting. For you, I’m rolling out the Reader’s Guide to Journalists from time to time.

From my journalist and ex-journalist friends, I solicit further rules, for which — observing one of the Rules — you’ll get proper credit.

Herewith, the Reader’s Guide to Journalists:

Rule No. 1: People we dislike give “rambling” statements and answers; people we like give “wide-ranging” or “comprehensive” statements and answers.

Rule No. 2: We like to use unnecessarily long, seemingly formal versions of common words so our stories sound more important. People always “attempt” to do something; they never “try” to do it. And they always “receive” something; they never “get” it. In this, we are much like police officers (“The subject proceeded on foot …”).

Rule No. 3: People we like decline to comment; people we dislike refuse to comment.

Rule No. 4: We hate to use the word “that,” even when it is needed to make a sentence clear. This is because we were told that it was bad by a journalism school professor who last wrote a story back when “that” counted as four extra characters in the telegraph bill.

Rule No. 5: In fact, no, we didn’t study statistics in college.

Rule No. 6: All editors are mindless creativity-killing drones until we join the desk ourselves. Then all writers become sloppy prima donnas who won’t answer their damn phones on deadline.

Rule No. 7: We believe that if both sides criticize us, we’ve prepared an impartial, well-balanced report, even if both sides are criticizing us because we got it all wrong.

Rule No. 8: The headline is always someone else’s fault.

Rule No. 9: We correct all mistakes, unless they’re important.

Rule No. 10: Just because you couldn’t find the story on the home page at the moment you decided to check the news doesn’t mean we didn’t cover it.

Rule No. 11: One occurrence is interesting; two are an oddity; three are a front-page trend.

Rule No. 12: We used to write in a dry, uptight style because we hoped The New York Times would hire us. Now we right write in a dry, uptight style because we hope BuzzFeed will think it’s worth repurposing and link to us. (Thanks to Daniel Victor for spotting the typo.)

Rule No. 13: We insist that there are always two sides to every story, even when there aren’t. We would totally write “But Mr. Hitler insisted …” with a straight face.

Rule No. 14: We always treat our sources with respect, unless they’re Southern, in which case their tobacco and beer choices must be noted and their quotations must be rendered in a colorful way. This is because we believe Southerners are the only Americans who smoke, drink, and drop the final g when talkin’.

Rule No. 15: We write in short paragraphs (journalism school rule: no ledes of more than 33 words) because we assume readers share our short attention spans.

Rule No. 16: We like to use modifiers like “key” and “major” and “significant” because it means we don’t have to work as hard to make the importance of the subject clear from the context.

Rule No. 17: We never use semicolons; this is because editors and journalism school teachers think they’re highfalutin.

Rule No. 18: “Time dilation” (n): The slowing of the clock in the period between turning in a story and getting the edits.

Rule No. 19: If the slug or the budgetline includes the word “adorable,” it probably isn’t news.

Rule No. 20: When we write that someone is “controversial,” we mean we believe he’s up to something but we can’t print it. (suggested by Lex Alexander)

Rule No. 21: The word “alleged” has magical, lawyer-killing powers.

Rule No. 22: All female entertainment figures with short hair are perky.

Rule No. 23: All heart attacks are “massive.”

Rule No. 24: All disputes are “controversies.” They come in “firestorms.”

Rule No. 25: When we say something “comes in the wake of” something else, we mean they’re related, but we can’t prove it.

Rule No. 26: The only acceptable second reference for “helicopter” is “chopper.”

Rule No. 27: Jobs are never lost. They’re “axed.”

Rule No. 28: If the headline is in the form of a question, the answer is “no.” (Also known as Betteridge’s Law.)

Rule No. 29: People don’t “say” anything. They “reveal,” “disclose,” “admit” or “charge” it.

Rule No. 30: Everyone who complains “the media” aren’t reporting it originally heard about it from some part of “the media.”

Rule No. 31: Something happens for the first time “in recent memory” when we don’t want to look it up. (suggested by Andy Bechtel)

Rule No. 32: An “exclusive” interview is one that is happening now, because the talkative subject can’t be in two places at the same time.

Rule No. 33: A “scoop” is when we add a counterintuitive observation to the facts someone else unearthed.

Rule No. 34: Sources we like say “going to” and “want to.” Sources we don’t like say “gonna” and “wanna.”

Rule No. 35: A survey’s rigor is inversely proportional to its “wow” factor.

Rule No. 36: We have an endless capacity to be surprised that it snows in the winter.

Rule No. 37: When we say a large institution does something “quietly,” we mean “sneakily” and with nefarious purpose. (suggested by Aron Pilhofer)

Rule No. 38: When you tell a publicist “no, thank you,” he or she will hear “I’ll get right on it!”

Rule No. 39: Anything that has been common knowledge for less than three hours is breaking news.

Rule No. 40: If a person owns more than one gun, he or she “possesses an arsenal.”

Rule No. 41: All immigrants are “animated” or “vibrant.” Especially women.

Rule No. 42: Any lobbying group with a phone number is “influential.” If it has a letterhead, it is “powerful.”

Rule No. 43: A “wooded area” is any place with a tree. If there are two trees, it’s a “densely wooded area.”

Rule No. 44: Firearms are never “held.” They are always “brandished.”

Rule No. 45: Any gathering of more than two journalists at a presser or crime scene is a “media circus.”

Rule No. 46: There are only two kinds of gunfire: “sporadic” or “rapid-fire.”

Rule No. 47: If an editor mentions it, then “everyone is talking about it” and you should consider it an assignment.

Rule No. 48: If one analyst or expert disagrees, it’s a controversy.

Rule No. 49: An “expert” is anyone who has been quoted on a subject more than once.

Rule No. 50: If the bullet wound is anywhere above the shoulders, the victim was shot “execution style.”

Rule No. 51: When we describe something as “cutting edge,” we mean we don’t know how it works.

Rule No. 52: All suburbs are “leafy.” They always have “well-manicured lawns.”

Rule No. 53: Any place that isn’t New York, Boston, Los Angeles or San Francisco is “the heartland.”

Rule No. 54: “At first glance” means we started with this lede, but the reporting didn’t pan out.

Rule No. 55: A person is “well-known” if spell-check doesn’t underline his or her name in red.

Rule No. 56: All heroes are “unsung” up until the moment they appear on morning network television.

Rule No. 57: Adding “-gate” to a noun means we think something’s fishy here but no one’s been convicted yet.

Rule No. 58: A public official is always “beleaguered” if anyone has said anything negative about him or her in the past two weeks.

Rule No. 59: Real-world values rarely increase “exponentially.” It just sounds cooler than “a lot.”

Rule No. 60: TV journalists never “interview” people. They always “sit down with” them.

Written by Alex

September 26, 2012 at 12:14 pm

37 Responses

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  1. “Controversial” = “We think he’s up to something.”


    October 1, 2010 at 12:52 pm

  2. Rule 23: After a certain age, perky people become spunky.


    July 1, 2011 at 3:54 pm

  3. ‘allegedly’ is a lawsuit-proof vest and no amount of evidence to the contrary will convince me otherwise, because without it lawyers are terrifying.

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    July 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm

  4. Hysterical. And accurate. And, yeah, Andria, “perky” becomes “spunky” after a certain age. So tell me, are you “perky” or “spunky”?

    Jim Massara

    September 27, 2012 at 11:32 am

  5. Awesome things here. I’m very satisfied to peer your post. Thanks so much and I’m having a look ahead
    to touch you. Will you kindly drop me a e-mail?


    July 19, 2013 at 11:40 am

  6. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you design this website yourself or did
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  7. Very funny Alex. Love the blog!


    March 6, 2014 at 12:38 pm

  8. If you can get “murder” or “mystery” in a headline, the story will make the front of the local section or even Page 1. If you can get both “murder: and mystery” in a headline, it’s certain to make Page 1, top of the fold.

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    March 11, 2014 at 2:19 pm

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    It’s the little changes which will make the most important changes.
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  12. To M Alex Johnson, Please look into the Harry Reed and the Nevada/cattle story.


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