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Mass media phrases that annoy me, #1 and #2

As an avid reader (and, slightly less frequently, aficionado) of the output of the local press, I find every now and then that there's something that just sticks in my craw -- a turn of phrase, a metaphor, a witticism -- that grates on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Until last night, the winner for me in this category has been "gangland mayhem," a phrase that intrepid Herald-Sun crime reporter John Stevenson uses all-too-frequently in his coverage of activity down at the Courthouse.

"Judge Foobar today set Al Ne'erdowell's bail at an even $1 million," Stevenson might write, "arguing that his presence on the street could intimidate witnesses cowed by the gangland mayhem evident in the heinous crime of which the defendant is accused."

I mean, what the heck is gangland mayhem, anyway? Did a whole mess of gang members go to Walt Crips-ney World and find that the Dumbo ride is playing its theme music at double-time speed? Wait, that would be gangland hilarity, never mind.

If anything, the gangland mayhem phrase conjures impressions of Al Capone and the speakeasy era, of suicide doors and booze runners.

But as of today, we have a new winner, courtesy of an Associated Press wire dispatch on the fiftieth anniversary of N.C.'s municipal annexation law:

But organizers of local anti-annexation movements who want the General Assembly to overhaul what they called the "forced" annexation law argue it has reached a mid-life crisis, and a comb-over won't hide its glaring flaws.

Billpic Thanks, AP, for bringing back truly awful memories of Schoolhouse Rock. After all, we all know that Bill doesn't have great hair. But we saw him when he was just a young, eager scrap of legislation, long before he was enacted to law and then -- and, kids, they don't show this part on Saturday morning, it's too gruesome a fate to consider -- exiled to dusty legal tomes, to be found only by law librarians and panicked law clerks.

By fifty, Bill apparently lost most of the papyrus at his top, so many shreds removed like tabs from a college union flyer ("Fridge for sale, call 555-1212"). And now poor Bill has to push the last few inches he's got left back over his shining pate, his blank cover sheet?

Seriously, could no one find a better metaphor than the comb-over? Who writes this stuff? More importantly: who edits it?

I'm sure a Google search would find the culprit, but knowing who actually published such a thing in the first place might just push me into newsroom gangland mayhem.



I am reminded of this weekend's WUNC program, in which Malcolm Gladwell relates the story of how he and another wire journalist competed to see who could insert the phrase "perverse and often baffling" into more stories.

I actually like the comb-over metaphor, it's apt. It's harder to use than "gangland mayhem", which I hereby resolve to use in at least one BCR post per week.

Michael Bacon

My pet peeves: "eateries" and "fare" when reporting on restaurant business updates. Nobody else in the world uses those words, and they sound dumb to boot.


As a former journalist myself, I've identified a long list of media cliches that I simply can't stand.

Here are a handful:

"anxious moments" as in "There were some anxious moments at the airport today...." That really means something bad could have happened, but nothing actually did happen.

"shots rang out" as in "And that's when witnesses say the shots rang out..." Do shots ever do anything other than ring out?

"imagine" as in "Imagine such and such. Well, that's exactly what happened to a Durham woman..." Technically, you could use this intro to any story in a newscast: "Imagine Duke losing to Wake Forest. Well, that's exactly what happened last night..."

Then there's "pain at the pump" and "hazy, hot and humid." Those get trotted out at every opportunity.

My wife and I joke that you could have a drinking game, taking a shot every time a local news person uses a worn-out cliche.


All fires mentioned by WRAL, on the air or on their website are sparked.


My pet peeve: "Cautiously optimistic." I've hated that one for years -- I think I first noticed it during the OJ trial.


RE drinking games:

Unfortunately, such a game would cause an epidemic of liver psoriasis. Indeed, we could have a horrible self-perpetuating problem:

"In a perverse and almost baffling turn of events on this hazy, hot and humid may evening, John Temperance shot three and turned his gun on himself. Shots rang out at 11:32 outside the McParker Bar in the Family Fare shopping center parking lot. Witnesses report that John was ranting about there not being enough alcohol in Iowa, and after a series of anxious moments, began shooting. In a macabre scene reminiscent of the gangland mayhem of prohibition Chicago, this mild-mannered graduate student with a geeky comb-over..."

or somesuch...


Sorry- got one more. When will the news media stop using the '-gate' suffix for every little scandal? Nannygate, Monicagate, etc. The Watergate reference has been pounded into the earth's inner core and beyond. Let's put that one to bed (oops, another tiresome expression).


as Dave Barry would say, "Gangland Mayhem is a good name for a rock band..."

Jonathan Jones

Couple of thoughts: The AP -- long a bastion of the straight, just-the-facts-ma'am news report -- has been asking its writers over the last few years to write with more of a feature-y style. I find it often doesn't turn out so well. AP writers daily work just doesn't lend itself to to that type of writing. They might file 10 versions of the same story over the course of the day as they get new facts. While a newspaper reporter might file one for the web and then spend a few hours working on the wording they want for the paper.

"gangland mayhem"? Doesn't bother me nearly as much as seeing "impacted" used to describe something other than teeth. That's my biggest fingernails-meet-chalkboard peeve.

Anyway, I did an archive search of the H-S and the phrase only showed up 6 times -- all within a short period of each other last fall -- and five of them were about developments with the new jail. In each case it appeared the same bit of information, attributed to Sheriff Hill, was being recycled for background. So while the phrase might annoy you, it appears to me Stevenson has only used it in two different contexts and it's been a darn while since he has. I wouldn't call 6 times out of some 5,000 articles in the archive with his byline on it "all-too-frequent."

This other story was written by the AP's political correspondent in Raleigh. He's a good reporter and I usually enjoy his reports.

Michael Bacon

Another one: some survey says that 51% of people think something, and it becomes "most Durhamites..." No. "Most" should be reserved for 67% or above. "More than not" is sufficient for 51%.


How about a Durham city government cliche that used to grate on my nerves when I covered city hall?... City officials response to everything: We're doing our "due diligence." Blah.


don't forget "Scrambled", as in "school system officials scrambled to substitute sawdust for recently recalled ground beef..."

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