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Crisis? What crisis?

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 08:32 UK time, Thursday, 26 July 2007

Crisis is a word much loved by journalists but has it become so overused that it has lost its meaning?

The World TonightIt's been widely employed in the past couple of weeks in relation to the floods and relations with Russia, for instance. So I looked it up in the dictionary to remind myself what it means in the world outside of journalism. Of the several meanings given, this one is the nearest to sense in which journalists use it...

    'a condition of instability or danger, as in social, economic, political, or international affairs, leading to a decisive change'

It seems to me that many journalists have lost sight of the last part about 'leading to a decisive change'.

And before I'm accused of being holier than thou, I confess that The World Tonight has not been immune from doing this - last week we described the diplomatic dispute between London and Moscow as a 'crisis' and I winced. In my feedback to the output editor (we dissect the programme after each edition to decide what worked, what didn't and why) I said it didn't constitute a crisis in my view because it is too early to say if there will be permanent damage.

Mind you, at least we didn't compare the dispute to the Cold War, which many of our colleagues in the press have done, and which led the Russia expert, Robert Service, to go on the Today programme and write in The Observer that - and I paraphrase - 'I knew the Cold War and this ain't no Cold War'.

When it comes to the floods, the areas affected will return to normal eventually when the waters recede, although it may have a more permanent impact on the lives of some of the people who have had their homes flooded and don't have insurance. So how much should we talk of a crisis?

One of the values BBC journalism puts great emphasis on trying to live up to is accuracy. On top of that, language is the most basic of tools for a journalist. So using it accurately is essential. Though dramatic words help make our stories stand out, we have to guard very carefully against being tempted into hyperbole.


  • 1.
  • At 09:47 AM on 26 Jul 2007,
  • DaveH wrote:

The other two overused words are disaster and tragedy.

Every rail crash - even where caused by a car like Selby - is a disaster, even if there are only about 3 dead, when ten die every day on the roads. That suggests other agendas too.

The Boxing Day tsunami was a tragedy with 300,000 killed and huge areas devastated. The current floods are terrible for those involved, but about 4 people have died and the waters will recede, allowing hte infrastructure to start working in a few days. It is not the end of the world.

Overused, these words come to have no impact. "Oh yes, another tragedy". It may be the lack of education among 20-35yr olds in broadcasting that leads to an insufficiently wide vocabulary.

  • 2.
  • At 09:54 AM on 26 Jul 2007,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

Another definition of the word 'crisis' I have heard is 'The original wolf-word without which no modern newspaper could remain in business for very long'.

Yes indeed.

  • 3.
  • At 10:05 AM on 26 Jul 2007,

Agonising over the misuse (intentional or otherwise)of english (lower case intentional) is not enough! Surely the task of an editor is to...edit? This issue is one of many mechanisms, either through ignorance or malintent, which fuel the currently high levels of cynicism regarding journalism in this country. It is seen across the media as sensationalism has replaced objective reporting as the primary goal. You, the editor, cannot distance yourself from it either; you are part of the media monster out of control, and power out of control leads to destruction. Now that is a crisis!

  • 4.
  • At 11:57 AM on 26 Jul 2007,
  • gene green wrote:

i agree that words used must be carefully chosen but how also is it essential that the words chosen should be correctly pronounced and,sadly,how often they are not

  • 5.
  • At 01:00 PM on 26 Jul 2007,
  • Claire loco wrote:

Another over used wrod is love. People seem to be using it a lot these days where as back in the "olden days" it was a sacred word.

  • 6.
  • At 01:34 PM on 26 Jul 2007,
  • J WESTERMAN wrote:

“One of the values that BBC journalism puts great emphasis on trying to live up to is accuracy.”

Even when it succeeds it often damages the result with gratuitous opinions and by omitting inconvenient facts: e.g. look at the BBC “Cash for Honours” articles.
I have sent a few notes to Nick Robinson on this very subject. Even if they are published it is very unlikely that they will be answered.
When you deal with criticisms fully and accurately people may believe your premise.

Glad to see this kind of thing being discussed.

It's always a very difficult area to judge- while there's no doubt that the flooding will have caused a number of "personal crises" it certainly isn't one on a large scale.

Of course, people affected could be offended by this kind of view, and may complain. It's important to remain impartial!

And to J Westerman- I'm not sure commenting on Nick Robinson's blog is the best way to create dialogue. They're very much an experiment in news reporting; if you have a genuine grievence I'd point you towards the official complaint channels...

  • 8.
  • At 11:59 PM on 26 Jul 2007,
  • J WESTERMAN wrote:

Re 7 Alastair 26 Jul 2007

There is a point in getting as many people as possible talking about this sort of thing. The more publicity, the more people will be aware of the problem.
I do not know whether you have had experience in dealing with official complaints. Unfortunately they tend to be very narrow in their coverage..



  • 9.
  • At 09:05 AM on 27 Jul 2007,
  • Ian Kemmish wrote:

The language of hyperbole also seems to suffer from an inverse-square law. (Summed up in the infamous headline "small earthquake in China, not many dead")

On Monday of this week, for example, the only things on News 24 which trumped randomly-selected human interest stories from Gloucestershire seemed to be regular sport bulletins and "breaking news" updates about Shambo.

Other crises around the world on Monday included the drought and brush fires elsewhere in Europe and lethal floods in China (on Monday, I had only been told about one flood death in the UK, in Bedford, on my local news). A story which might lead to a decisive change was the revelation that Rosatom had allegedly been using the inhabitants of the village of Muslyumovo to test the effects of ingesting alpha-particle emitters since as early as 1947.

The drought story got a few sentences in some of the half-hourly headline summaries, but the Chinese story appeared not to get a single word. So far I've only seen the Rosatom story on a Russian language opposition-friendly website (so it may have credibility problems, I admit).

There are areas in broadcasting where being populist is good. I'm not sure news is one of them.

  • 10.
  • At 09:28 AM on 27 Jul 2007,
  • Simon wrote:

There's a definate bias towards coverage of the floods in the South, whereas the floods in the North did not receive the same sort of coverage.

  • 11.
  • At 11:49 AM on 27 Jul 2007,
  • Lisa wrote:

You a right on the one hand Dave, the word tragedy is overused. However even the Tsunami was not a tragedy. A tragedy is in fact a literary term for a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or society, to downfall or destruction.

  • 12.
  • At 03:19 PM on 27 Jul 2007,
  • Jez Lawrence wrote:

Talking of words used incorrectly, in the Floods at-a-glance web page here:

Not only does it only cover the midlands and very eastern edge of Wales, thereby totally ignoring the floods in the north of England and parts of Scotland, but to compound the error, there's a tick box which says 'show where the heaviest rain fell, 1 May-22 July'.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but the floods in the south only started last Friday, the 20th. All flooding before this was in the North. Why is the North not on the map?

Never mind liberal bias (and, speaking as a liberal, even I notice it on the Beeb these days), what about the good old north/south divide, alive and well in media-land!

Although I'm grateful for the show on wednesday night finally showing bits of the aftermath of the floods in the north and letting southern householders see what they're in for. A step in the right direction but I can't beleive the callousness and insensitivity of the "1 May-22nd July" omissions.

  • 13.
  • At 04:51 PM on 27 Jul 2007,
  • Bernard wrote:


Tragedy does indeed mean a dramatic composition. It also means:

A very sad event or situation, especially one involving death or suffering: the tragedy of war.

So Dave did use the word correctly.

  • 14.
  • At 01:00 AM on 28 Jul 2007,
  • Gareth wrote:

An interesting post Mr. Burnett. Thank you.

'Catastrophic' has been de rigeur in the media since the Air France Concorde crash. I suspect TV reporters are paid by the syllable.

A thesaurus and a stiff upper lip wouldn't go amiss in this world of artificial anxiety and bellowing newsreaders.

The likes of Anna Ford, Michael Buerk and Moira Stewart could read the news without making a performance of it.(Or perhaps that was the performance.) Has the increased competition in news media resulted in an editorial style that pushes drama over facts and accuracy, in order to secure the viewer's attention?

I increasingly find myself turning off spoken news output, particularly from the commercial channels but also BBC radio. Chris Morris has a lot to answer for.

  • 15.
  • At 02:02 PM on 28 Jul 2007,
  • SteveMD wrote:

"One of the values BBC journalism puts great emphasis on trying to live up to is accuracy"

I'm sorry, but it has become very clear that BBC journalists just cannot or will not see the ingrained culture of sensationalism in all journalism. I can feel the shrugging shoulders and wry smiles now of journalists who may read this and that is part of the problem, you will not allow yourselves to see it.

It is the nature of the beast, but one would expect the BBC to do more than any other news broadcaster to resist that sensationalist nature.

Unfortunately it seems too great a temptation for most editors, who let's face it, set the tone of reporting overall. They decide what stories to run with and what gets dropped.

Isn't it time for a 'grand experiment'?

How bloody marvelous would it be for people to have a source of news that is not sensationalised, that does not freely mix opinion and fact?

Within the BBC, it's T.V. news programmes seem to be the worst for 'theatrics', the toe-curling tactic of sticking a camera in the face of a victim until they cry is one of the worst examples of this culture, but it shows through in a thousand small ways. As you pointed out we no longer have problems always a crisis, never confusion always chaos, and so on.

Heaven forbid we should get the boring unvarnished truth, because nowadays news is sold as entertainment and must be 'sexy' or it doesn't run.

For a glaring example, which has recently come back into the headlines, look at the MMR 'scandal'.

The lives of children put at risk for months, even years, because the news media, including the BBC, decided to run with the headline instead of giving a balanced presenteation of the facts.

Reporting boths sides views with equal weight is not balance, giving a minority view the same airtime as the overwhelming majority view (as with MMR) is a distortion.

Efforts must be made to separate opinion from facts and to give a truly balanced presentation of the facts.

Putting things into context has come to mean opinion first, what happened to comparisons to the wider reality?

Why do users of the NHS believe they get a better service than everyone else? Because they have experience of their own service and only know about others experience through the news media.

Why do people feel less safe and more vulnerable to crime, when it is clear that crime has dropped by it's largest margin for decades? Because the news media, whilest rightly reporting the worst of crime, fails to put criminal incidents in context.

I could go on and on, it is the same with almost every aspect of news, where we rely on the media.

There is little that can be done about the parts of the media owned by vested interests, but the 'vested interest' of the BBC should surely be clear and accurate reporting.

I am sure I'm not alone in dreaming of the day when I will have a place to go where I can be sure what I see and hear about the world is the unvarnished truth, presented with balance and integrity.

  • 16.
  • At 10:14 AM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • J WESTERMAN wrote:

What notice? What notice?

Are those in control going to take of this outpouring of requests for accurate unembellished news?
My guess is as little as is absolutely necessary to dampen down the present furore.

  • 17.
  • At 10:43 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • grania davy wrote:

you do not dream alone, but dream on! The BBC is funded by the public but the employees could not care less about those they serve. It is obviously too difficult for us to be served up with clear, accurate, unbiased reporting. They think we are too stupid to form our own opinions, so serve us theirs, and that applies accross the board. I object to having to pay for it without choice, with the newspapers I do have a choice.

  • 18.
  • At 08:55 PM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • Rich wrote:

Agreed about the over-sensationalised, 'sexed-up' terminology of modern reporting. One more that springs to mind is 'epidemic' - I've noticed the inaccurate use of this word (once only associated with infectious diseases) rapidly becoming an 'epidemic' within BBC news reports on public health and policy topics.

I'm no scientist, but I wouldn't exactly call a small percentage of the population occasionally drinking more than two units in a sitting a 'binge drinking epidemic', nor an overall rise of about 15lb in average weights since 1995 an 'obesity epidemic'.

As with the boy who cried wolf - sooner or later there will be a genuine epidemic of some highly contagious disease and not only will the journalistic 'profession' lack a term that carries suitable gravitas, the population will have become so used to everyhting being described as epidemic in proportion that they'll dismiss serious advice as yet more overexcited media scaremongering.

Please stop fuelling this health panic frenzy, much of which has been created in order to justify increased grants to researchers carrying out work on behalf of various unaccountable pressure groups, and let's have a little perspective.

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