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Slate's Press Box: It's Raining Hurricane Cliches


Tropical Storm Alberto was the first named storm of the 2006 Hurricane Season. And we're already hearing a lot of phrases like these:

(Soundbite of Hurricane Katrina reports)

Unidentified Woman #1: The rain and wind are still pounding the Gulf Coast.

Unidentified Woman #2: Hurricane Katrina is lashing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast this morning.

Unidentified Man #1: A major hurricane barrels toward the Gulf Coast.

Unidentified Man #2: Towns and neighborhoods were reduced to rubble.

Unidentified Man #3: This city dodged a bullet.

BRAND: Dodged a bullet. We don't have to go far to find disaster clichés, even our own NPR reporters can get caught up in phrases like, trees snapping like twigs or roofs pealed back like sardine cans. Hurricane season is not just a time of real physical danger, it's one of linguistic peril, as well as journalists dust off their disaster clichés. Dust off - that sounds like a cliché too. Anyway, joining us to make a plea for better hurricane reporting and especially writing is Jack Shafer. He's press critic for the online magazine, Slate. Hi, Jack.

Mr. JACK SHAFER (Press Critic, Slate Magazine): Back at you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: You wrote recently about a 30-year-old article by Alexander Coburn, the journalist. And that article chronicled the laziest habits of disaster reporting. Are they still true today?

Mr. SHAFER: Truer than ever. The cream that Coburn collected is clotted into a big vanilla pudding of clichés, and so it's thicker and stronger and stands about the size of a mountain now.

BRAND: Tell us about some of the clichés, because it's not just phrases. It's also the writing itself and the story arc.

Mr. SHAFER: Oh, exactly. There's a limited vocabulary, and so what happens is that in the example of earthquakes, they always strike or hit. Buildings are flattened. The next day's coverage is all about the chaos - that's the next part of the script. And the aftershocks, you know, deter people from moving people back into their houses. The next day, it's about hospitals being filled and volunteers arriving, still more rubble. Then you've always got the footage of survivors being dug for, and the lost dog that's wandering around and looking for its owner. Whenever reporters go to do these stories, they're looking at them usually, in many cases, for the very first time and they don't really think through the issues. So they collect, basically, the most immediate visceral images that they can, and they're usually the images and they're using the words that we've heard and seen a million times before.

BRAND: So, we keep hearing the same stories over and over again, but they are the same stories over and over again. Every year, we have hurricanes and almost every year we have major earthquakes. How is it possible to write a different story?

Mr. SHAFER: I hope that's a rhetorical question. Otherwise, I want to talk to your producer, because it's incumbent upon the journalist to do something that deserves notice. Otherwise, we might as well just run last year's footage of the flooding of the Mississippi and keep it in the can and run it as a perennial like an old episode of I Love Lucy. I think everyone was compelled by the coverage of the tsunami, because good coverage of tsunamis is incredibly rare because tsunamis are incredibly rare. And every now and then, a journalist rises over a cliché to report in real time something really meaningful and powerful about - there's a cliché, powerful - about a disaster.

BRAND: Sure, we journalists care about good writing and the good story, but why is it important for the listeners, the readers, the TV viewers?

Mr. SHAFER: Because our brains are basically built to tune out clichés, or if they're visual clichés, to see right through them. A journalist's job is to make us see anew - even if it's a flood or an earthquake or a tornado or a train wreck that we may have experienced the coverage before - they have the same responsibility that a sportswriter has when he's covering a baseball game, to make the event seem fresh and new and unique. Because they are.

BRAND: And to make people care.

Mr. SHAFER: Well, that's your call.

BRAND: That's opinion and analysis from Jack Shafer. He's press critic for the online magazine, Slate. Thanks a lot, Jack.

Mr. SHAFER: So long.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues, cliché-free. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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