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"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?
"Injured Marine flies home.
"Owner of Mavericks works at McDonald's."
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.