The choc of the words

For decades French magazine Paris-Match has been known for its slogan: "the weight of words, the choc of pictures", a motto depicting its editorial philosophy. Since I arrived in the UK, I am everyday stunned by the journalistic choices of British newspapers, in particular their terminology (I will ignore Page 3 for the time being).

Worded to choc.

In local papers, words seem not to be weighed, but rather outweighed, so to say. There is a constant dramatization of the facts in order to exaggerate their importance and create an impact. This "superlativization", if I may use this neologism, tends also to be Manichean, with a strong tendency to darken the picture. Everything is either white or black, and there is always little room for nuances. In that instance, finding the right word is not finding the most accurate to describe a specific situation, but the most impactful. And often the more sordid the better.

I played a little game the other day, and highlighted in one of these newspapers all the words that were out of proportion. When I was done, I flipped again through the pages and realised that most pages were marked. Slaughter, terror, blaze, horror, etc... were only a few example of the sensational vocabulary used to depict unfortunately ordinary events like a car accident or a domestic fire.

This shades an interesting light on the British culture, and by consequence on the cultural disparities between our two countries.

Black and White, and everything in between.

First, there is this Saxon addiction for binary. I already wrote a note on that topic when I realised that the local plumbing remembered me of how German tackle love... French uses the expression "le sens des demi-mesures" (the sense of half-measures). This relates to one's ability to adapt one's behaviour or vocabulary to the situation. To come back to the above-mentioned colourful analogy, it is about using a great diversity of grey shades between the black and the white. To that extend, British journalism provides to the readership what it is receptive to: clear statements about good and evil.

Second insight is about the need for emotions. To that extend the British people is not only Saxon, it is Anglo-Saxon. While German readers expect newspapers to relate facts and only facts, British readers expect more from these sheets of paper. They want to find content that engages their heart, and not only their head. As a consequence, the use of polarised language is the insurance to trigger a consensual, emotional response. Strong words generate a common feeling amongst the entire readership, whilst nuances are a source of complexity. They create divergence: everyone agrees on what black or white is, but when you start referring to light dark grey, everyone has a different perception. So journalists tend to level their discourse to address the larger audience and rallying them under a common set of basic emotions. Some could argue that these words are used to engage, to attract the attention, to get the reader involved... No body bother about tempered water, but freezing or boiling water provoke a reaction. Ultimately I think that this leads to the trivialization of words which are losing their primary sense. Can we really harness under the same word of "Horror" what happens in Iraq and a dog being ran over in Yorkshire by a truck. No offence to the widowing bitch.

This simplification of the message is not only visible in the press. It is also present in advertising, and in fact highly valued. Many advertising experts actually claim that American and British advertising are the best in the world because they deliver a simplistic message with no frills (whilst other countries tend to express more circumvolutory, tortuous though equivalent messages). Funny enough, some British creatives even complain that their domestic approach is sometimes too complex or sophisticated compared to the US... But after all this is the aim of advertising conveying a simple message, "buy it", in an appealing way.

So what should we say back in France? Maybe that our detractors are right, that we are intellectualising too much. That the Age of Enlightenment is way behind us and that we should stop philosophising about everything from the cost of a baguette to the number of taps on a sink... And yet if I was stopping to think about what is going on around me, you would not be reading these lines ;-)

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