10 common phrases in news reports, and what they really mean
Every day, many of us go online, or watch a watch news broadcast, or possibly even pick up a newspaper, in an effort to keep ourselves abreast of the day’s current events. And while the articles we read provide us the who, what; and why, a lot of times there can be little phrases, seemingly throwaway clauses, that can actually give us a little more insight into what’s going on with the newsroom reporting these stories.
So here’s a little reader’s guide to ten of those phrases, or devices, that seem to appear all the time, and what they tell us about the activities behind the scenes for our journalists.
“From Staff Reports” – Seeing this phrase at the beginning of any news report means either: a) you’re reading a press release that has been reprinted verbatim by the news agency, b) you’re reading a modified press release that has been edited slightly, either by shifting around a phrase or two or by removing an overly-subjective lead sentence, or c) you’re reading a news item on a topic assigned to a reporter, and the reporter just couldn’t come up with enough information to write a story long enough to warrant a byline.
“…was not available for comment.” – This doesn’t mean the person didn’t necessarily want to talk, but that they just haven’t spoken with the reporter. If you see this in a story, what this really is is the reporter telling their editor they did their job and tried to get a hold of the person they wanted to quote, but said person didn’t answer their phone.
“…was not immediately available for comment.” – In this case, the reporter finished the story, but in the rush to meet their deadline realized they hadn’t actually spoken with the person they were writing about. Realizing they had about two minutes to file their story, the reporter likely called the person and either got a busy signal or voice mail. This did not upset the reporter terribly, because they didn’t have time to conduct an interview, anyway.
“…declined to comment.” – This is the reporter telling their editor, “Yes, I did actually talk to the person you wanted me to quote, but they don’t want to say anything, so quit bugging me about it.”
“(news agency) has reached out for comment.” – In this case, the reporter doesn’t actually have the person’s phone number, so they sent them an email, or a message on social media, or asked some guy who knows some guy to ask them to call.
“Headline that ends with a question mark?” – A big, bold headline challenging a notion you once believed to be impossible could now be coming true. That is, at least at first glance. Ultimately, the answer to the headline question is “no.” Sure, the story might want to suggest the answer to the headline is yes, but ultimately if the reporter had enough information, the layout editor would have rewritten the headline to say so. For example: “Will Dinosaurs Destroy Your Home?” might get you to read the story, but if they had any real proof, the headline would have been, “Dinosaurs Will Destroy Your Home!,” or “Threat of Dinosaur Rampage on Rise,” or at least “Dinosaurs Could Possibly Sit on Your Buick.” The exception to this is if the headline is not written as a yes-or-no question, in which case the answer is, “we don’t know.”
“According to reports…” – Often appearing in crime stories, this means the reporter wasn’t actually at the event, but found out about it sometime later, usually about a day. Odds are the reporter started writing the story based on the report they received and then reached out to an official to get more information. The official, however, wasn’t able to provide further clarity, otherwise the information would have been attributed to said official, instead of the report. This phrase often appears in the same story with the phrases “…was not available for comment,” and “…was not immediately available for comment.”
“According to officials…” – Usually this means the reporter didn’t catch the name of the person they were talking with. It’s also possible the reporter knows the person’s name, but doesn’t want to identify a casual news source that could provide them news tips in the future.
“In a shocking turn of events…” – Often used to start a lazy sentence to juice up a story that ultimately, isn’t that shocking. Recent examples include this mid-January weather forecast from the Washington Post, which reported, “In a shocking turn of events, a cold area of high pressure finally brings below-normal temperatures to the area,” and this report released the same week in Harpers Bazaar about Gwyneth Paltrow’s dieting habits, highlighting that “In a shocking turn of events, she also revealed that she keeps Oreos in the house for her kids.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth.” – Often reserved for either for editorials or quotations, this phrase used by columnists and indignant public officials usually means, that while they don’t agree with the premise presented to them, the truth is actually pretty darn close, even if they won’t admit it. Examples include this recent column from the Lexington Herald Leader imploring you ”Don’t Fall for the Lies of Big Marijuana,” and this article from Lawyersandsettlements (yes, it’s a thing) in which a Texas lawyer is shocked, shocked I tell you, that people could accuse lawyers of filing frivolous lawsuits.
So, there they are, hopefully providing a little more insight into some of the phrases you see every day. According to officials, there could be others, but in a shocking turn of events an official not immediately available for comment said nothing could be further from the truth.