Number 1: statistics. Journalists are notoriously bad at numbers. The other day on the news, a reporter was talking about the new study linking alcohol use to breast cancer. She was talking about a 10 percent increase in the risk as if it were shocking. I was convinced she believed a 10 percent increase was a ten-fold increase. A 10 percent increase means if the risk was five percent, it’s now 5.5 percent. A 10-fold increase means if it was 5 percent, it’s now 50 percent. Huge difference, completely lost on most journalists.
Number 2: cliches. Journalists embrace cliches so quickly that the real story gets lost behind the cliches. Elections are one example. You rarely see a campaign story about issues anymore. It’s all about the horse race — neck and neck, come from behind, squaring off, facing off, underdog, likeability, electability. It’s all poll results and speculation about why someone’s ahead or behind, and it’s all based on cliches. Writing with cliches is like falling off a log. It’s easy, because the cliche is the first thing that comes to mind. What’s sad is when the cliche is allowed to create the story.
Case in point: the recent Wisconsin shooting. Star Trib uses the headline “crime of passion.” The mayor of the town calls it “a love triangle.” Others call it a “lover’s quarrel.” Nobody says what it really is: domestic violence in the extreme. Even during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, nobody calls this story what it is because they’re drawn in by the cliches.
I learned that lesson years ago when covering a murder for the Messenger. I wrote my story and got a call from the director of the local domestic violence group. She was disappointed that I hadn’t told the story from that angle. She was right. It was the story of a man who killed the boy friend of his ex-lover. Domestic violence.
This “love triangle” or “crime of passion” angle minimizes the crime. It becomes understandable that way. But it’s actually completely inaccurate. Killing six people has absolutely nothing to do with “love,” and the word “passion” muddies the waters because there’s good passion and bad passion. Murder is murder. It’s violence. Horror, tragedy, mental illness, maybe, but journalists should leave love and passion out of it.