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Apocalyptic hyperbole leaves journalism speechless

As Japan was violently assaulted, Christchurch crumbled and Queensland drowned, how many times did you hear a journalist say;"there are no words to describe what we are seeing here".

Perhaps you heard; "I'm speechless. This just defies description".

The ashen-faced reporters are both wrong and right.

There most certainly are words to describe the current state of the world, and yet it is true they seem entirely inadequate.

That is because journalists and the media they work for have squandered our best words with decades of hyperbole.

Our most powerful language has been sold too cheaply. In its unending bid to make tomorrow's news more amazing than today's, the media has only made it more incredible. That is to say, so implausible as to elicit disbelief.

Every time the promotion of a reserve-grade footballer is described as a "shock" selection, every time a local Mayor is "devastated" by having a rescission motion voted down, journalism moves one step closer to rendering itself mute, indeed irrelevant, when it is needed most.

I was a young newspaper cadet during the first Gulf War.

I could barely conceal my pride as I threw the local paper on the table in front of my newspaper-editor father.

My breathless front-page piece on the local implications of the US invasion was met not with pride or admiration from the old man, but a warning.

"When you are reporting this stuff, make sure you leave yourself somewhere to go.

"Yes, today is big, but tomorrow could still be bigger. If you've used your most powerful language up, you'll have nowhere to go.

"You'll have no way to communicate the story if it escalates. You'll have emptied your clip."

Sage words.

I reacted to them by promptly embarking on a career in TV police reporting and sports commentary, both journalism genres not renowned for their measured understatement.

And I, like those around me, gorged myself on over-the-top language and inappropriate metaphor.

I did remember his advice even if I didn't always apply it.

We didn't speak of it again for another decade.

During that decade, 24-hours news channels grew ubiquitous and had to find something thrilling to feed every hour of an endless, competitive news cycle.

Newspapers had to assert their importance with an increasingly uninterested readership with ever-more attention-grabbing stories. Stories of horror, red-letter scandal, and terrorism.

And that was just the sports pages.

To be fair to sports journalism, it uses hyperbole deliberately and unapologetically. It considers it a weapon in the pursuit of metaphor. Such use was more legitimate when sport was a sideshow, not one of media's main events, and it too suffers from overuse.

But for the news media, this new competitive environment left no room for subtlety.

The media didn't just "cry wolf", it screamed "Bloodthirsty Supercanine Dressed as Grandma Will Eat Your Children In Their Beds Tonight". Or not.

Meanwhile, radio was promising; "The Greatest Countdown in the History of Humankind, this weekend on HotHitsFM".

Then, a plane flew into a skyscraper in New York.

This was history before our eyes. So much changed in an instant.

The challenge was presented: Chronicle and contextualise this moment.

Journalists turned first to their immediate frame of reference - other media.

What they found was the greatest event in the history of humankind had ended with Hotel California being played on HotHitsFM last weekend.

They found that horror already existed in the form of a star player being dropped for a key game.

They found that kids with rocks had "terrorised" pensioners in a sleepy suburban street.

So journalism turned to the dictionary for help, only to find that hyperbole had pumped dry the well of meaningful words.

In the end, the Bible apparently proved a more useful resource but that's a discussion for another time.

My Dad said; "See?"

It was an eloquent re-visitation of his argument of 10 years earlier.

And now, here we are, a decade on.

These days, we have celebrity journalists. A story hasn't been told until it's been told by a Breakfast Television host who has been parachuted into a town and culture completely unknown to him for some Steve-Irwinesque piece to camera.

You see, where words have failed, actions have attempted to fill the void.

But when Brisbane goes under water, isn't that Armageddon?

If so, then Christchurch must be, perhaps, apocalyptic?

As for Japan. Well, maybe there is a Japanese word we can use.

Hyperbolic language is tempting and satisfying in the short-term, especially to a circulation-hungry editor and an apathetic public.

But when the truly big one goes down, and journalism truly matters, the media is left without the necessary vocabulary.

My profession has abandoned the search for the right word and defaulted to always using the noisiest word?

Surely, journalism's purpose is to give context to events, not to competitively inflate them.

It appears an increasingly media-savvy public is not falling for our cheap tricks.

You may have noticed they've taken journalism into their own hands.

The only hope for "old media" journalism is to be superior to that new-fangled stuff.

More accurate. Closer to right. A mirror.

Bigger isn't always better.

Consider Japan the next time you read; "The heroic Melbourne Storm genius gutted devastated Brisbane faithful with a brave and historic tsunami of atomic bombs on Saturday night."

Tomorrow, you may have to articulate something genuinely big and important, and have someone believe you.


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