Let’s celebrate those who uncover corruption

“The government is a cover for corruption.”

In the dying days of 2021, working with Al Jazeera playing the background, these words in the subtitles of By The People, a documentary by Fatima Lianes about an indigenous community in Mexico, made me look up from my screen.

That one sentence (which you can see about 20 minutes into the video) is breath-taking in its simplicity. And it encapsulates so much that people feel is wrong with the world we live in now: instead of serving the people, governments simply serve as the façade behind which corruption flourishes.
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The elements of a good headline

Newspaper page with headlines

The “joy to the weed” headline is a perfect example of one that relies on cultural understanding – in this case, it’s a reference to the Christian carol “Joy to the World”. Picture: Hayden Walker, Unsplash.

In the good old days of print journalism, in the depths of a smoke-filled subs room, there was one thing a junior sub-editor* wanted: for a grizzled night editor, or revise sub, to look over and say “Good headline”.

The elements of a good headline then were that it was clever or witty, or contained a subtle play on words. And the basis of that cleverness was the assumption that the newspaper and its readers had a shared understanding of the world.

The first time I got that “good headline” accolade was for a brief two-paragraph story about a doctor somewhere in the East who was using ants (or some by-product of ants) to cure people of a long-forgotten (by me) ailment. My headline was:

Take two ants,
call me later

In a 1982 medical paper, the reference is explained – it’s based on “take two aspirin and call me in the morning”, an age-old joke about the telephone advice given by a doctor trying to get a little extra sleep. Continue reading

When to use the word alleged? Some simple rules

One of the most difficult things to get right in news journalism is the correct use of the word alleged.

An example from an article on the Facebook page of a radio station illustrates the point:

“A shocking video has emerged online of an alleged taxi driver hitting a woman in a taxi at a CBD rank.”

See that alleged?
It’s in the wrong place (and is not even really needed) – and the sentence is just clumsy. Here’s what I would have done: Continue reading

What journalists do – the narrowing of the eyes

What exactly is it that journalists do?

The list in your mind probably includes doing interviews, going to political rallies, taking photographs, drinking too much, holding a microphone in front of the president, doing research, drinking too much, bravely investigating the doings of the corrupt, harassing celebrities, reading scientific papers and writing articles. Did I mention the drinking?

And yes, journalists do all of those things – though not all of them drink too much.

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House style… just a waste of time?

This post was originally written in 2013 and has been updated.

In America, they are called copy editors. In South Africa, in a journalism context, they are called sub-editors (or subs). They form a vanishingly small percentage of the world population, and yet they are somewhat powerful.

That’s because much of the text disseminated by the world’s media passes before their eyes and gets fixed, or changed, or mutilated, or left alone. They correct grammar and spelling, they rewrite clumsy phrases, they cut copy to fit an allocated space and in most publications they write headlines. So far, so familiar – most people who read newspapers or news websites or magazines are aware that such people exist and have a vague idea of what they do.
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