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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Present Tense in Journalism

Back when I was preparing my book on the language of politics, I studied also the language of political journalists because news men and women were then and still are, but arguably to a lesser extent, the conduit for political news. A couple of days ago, I came across a Yahoo News link on my My Yahoo page reading New Orleans chooses mayor for huge recovery task. and clicked on it to find out who got elected. But as you will discover if you follow the link, the citizens of New Orleans had not chosen its mayor yet. The election was occurring on the day the story was published. As journalists use the present tense in headlines, this one was ambiguous as to whether it had past time or present time reference.

And the next day, I got another Yahoo news story on the election, this time titled "Nagin wins re-election in New Orleans." Here the headline unambiguously referred to a past event. So, we have two headlines, both in the present tense, but in one the headline had present time reference and the other had past time reference. In the case of "Nagin wins re-election in New Orleans" we would have no doubt that the election was over and Nagin had won. Or in the case of "Mayor Jones dies" we would have a sentence unambiguously past event. In short predicates that refer not to processes but end states of processes -- winning, dying, being born (the beginning of life but the end state of gestation), divorcing, etc., will unambiguously refer to the past when described using the present tense. On the other hand, there are processes like playing, flying, and working, etc., that can go either way."
Ohio State plays in Big Ten tournament championship game"
"Injured Marine flies home.
"Owner of Mavericks works at McDonald's."
In these cases we cannot be sure whether the game is over or ongoing or coming up. The same would, I think, be true of the Marine flying home and of the basketball team owner working at the fast food restaurant (might have gotten the wrong fast food chain.) Why, if the goal of journalism is to tell us the truth in as clear a way as possible would they use the present tense when the time reference is left ambiguous?

As I discovered while reading a journalism text book during preparation for my book, budding journalists are instructed to use the present tense to convey a sense of immediacy. This leads to classic TV news teasers like
(2) Man bites dog -- film at 11:00.
where we have a past action being described using the present tense. What I am wondering is if ordinary people ever talk this way.

We use the present tense to refer to future events as in
I go to Houston in June.
We use it to refer to present events, as in
I am writing a blog.
We use it to refer to generally (or always true) states, as in
Gold is heavier than water.
We use it to refer to events or processes that started in the past but are continuing, as in
My dog barfs a lot.
But do we ever use the present tense to refer to past completed events the way journalists do? Ican't think of any.

The first principle of journalism should be to tell the truth as you see it because that is the first principle of discourse generally. As a result, I find it troubling that journalists have decided to follow the injunction to use the present tense to give an impression of immediacy as a superordinate principle.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Marc AndrĂ© BĂ©langer said...

"journalists use the present tense in headlines" actually, "But do we ever use the present tense to refer to past completed events the way journalists do? I can't think of any." I can: when telling a story: "So I see this man walking down the street and I ask him..." We all do it. The journalist too is telling a story.

Also, it should be noted that the journalist who writes the article often doesn't choose the title; many papers have other people deciding the headlines.

10:07 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

I have noticed that sometimes my aol homepage looks like the National Enquirer, with the headlines.
The ones that get me are the ones that look like they are about someone important, but are only about someone semi-important.

11:21 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Excellent, Marc, you are right on both points. What is going on here is either a story telling style or story telling register. I am chagrined that I had to go to my book on speech acts and conversational interaction to rediscover what I think about style and register. (This is, I understand, not uncommon for authors -- you work something out, write it down, and like old soldiers, it fades away.) I argue there that style has to do with the sorts of interpresonal relations exist among the participants. We speak more formally with our bosses than our friends, for instance. Register, on the other hand, is associated with what people are doing and the statuses and roles of participants. So, both we and journalists both have the option to go into the story telling register. This does not, however, excuse headline writers, who are also journalists, for using ambiguous headlines.

So, Marc, nice.

L>T, I wonder why people use AOL? I have been told that it is primarily for the chat rooms, especially the racy ones. I can think of no other reason to use it since any internet portal allows one to go everywhere except, I suppose, AOL proprietary pages.

12:56 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

what? I don't know it's just what's on the screen when i get on the net. My daughter set it up that way. I guess i have options, just never considered doing anything diff. I haven't tried any of their 'racey chat rooms' what do i need those for? I'd rather talk to you. :)

6:12 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

I asked my daughter about AOL & 'racey chat rooms'. She said you might have it confused with yahoo. She says that's where the 'racey chat rooms' are.

Obviously, you & I are ignorant about these things. :)

6:43 PM

 
Blogger The Mighty Kat said...

I didn't see a way to email you, otherwise I wouldn't be posting this in your blog, but I worked on a new book that's out that I want to bring to your attention - Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log by Mark Liberman and Geoffery Pullum. Its focus is on linguistics at large, wherever they appear, which occasionally hits on the types of things you focus on. In any event, it's a very fun read you may enjoy in your offtime.

2:34 PM

 
Blogger L>T said...

You know what? It pisses me off when you don't respond to me. :)

8:37 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Okay, here is my comment, L>T. I know nothing of racey chat rooms. I wouldn't know how to find one but I suspect if I put Google to work I would be able to do so.

9:43 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

fair anough

10:43 AM

 
Blogger L>T said...

no scab picking either.

11:31 AM

 
Blogger Anna said...

I found you blog very interesting!! I am a student of linguistics at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and at the moment I am writing an MA thesis on the press discourse, genderlects and political correctness, which is also a form of self defence as I think I can learn how and why not to believe in everything the newspapers print.
Anna Dutka

2:02 PM

 

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