Saturday, 18 January 2020

Odd shots, 10: The media uses hyperbole to draw readers

This is the tenth post in a series. The series title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” The first post appeared on 24 August 2019 but there was an earlier post on 18 February of that year titled ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’. 

War, madness, civil strife, fire, cold: a kind of metaphor involving hyperbole (the use of unlikely expressions in order to achieve a rhetorical goal) is commonplace and so this post is one that is different from the others in this series. This time, the charge that is levelled at the media is deserved. Journalists do, indeed, use unwarranted expressions to draw readers to their stories. They do it for selfish purposes: to get people to commit the time necessary to read them.

And they do it frequently. Such things are cheap shots (or “reliable formulations”, if we are to avoid hyperbole). Having said that, the use of metaphors seems to be innate. Think of words such as “watchband” or “switchplate”, for example. In each case metaphor is employed for the purpose of nominalisation: in order to find a suitable term for a novelty. The reuse of words like this is a normal part of linguistic practice and is common to all cultures that use language (ie it is universal).

The point to be made here is that some kinds of metaphors exploit people’s tendency to focus on aberration. We are hard-wired to notice things that are different in some way. The flaw in the manufacture that will reduce the value of a product, the odd smell in the room that presages disaster, the striking countenance that introduces a potential mate, the stumble that singles out the halt individual in a herd, the swallow that promises summer. Writers use this human characteristic in order to control how we behave.

As with the other posts in this series, the examples in this survey were gathered over a period of time, in this case about three weeks in late 2019.

Military metaphors

On 17 September the Guardian tweeted, “Brazil fire warning shot to surfing rivals in Olympic qualifier.”

On 21 September on the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) website the kicker for a story read, “The comedian stands to reap a fortune as his iconic '90s sitcom intensifies the streaming arms race.” The story was about the 90s TV star Jerry Seinfeld.

On 21 September on the SMH website the kicker of a story read, “The President warned of a drawn-out fight with China over $500 billion in trade, in a setback for Australian hopes of easing a tariff war.” Once again using the language of conflict to draw the reader’s attention to a link.

On 23 September on the SMH website the kicker for a story read, “The call is at the centre of an escalating battle after the media reported Donald Trump asked the Ukrainian leader to investigate whether Joe Biden misused his position while vice-president.”

On 25 September at 3.49pm I saw a news story from The Verge in a tweet that had the headline, “Amazon reveals $180 Echo Frames smart glasses with Alexa built in.” The first sentence in the story was, “Amazon is getting into the smart glasses race.”

On 28 September the SMH put up a kicker for a story that went, “Joe Biden hopes to benefit from the coming impeachment battle. But it could also cement the view he is a deeply flawed candidate whose best days are behind him.”

On 3 October the SMH ran a kicker that went, “A second big front in the US trade wars would do even more damage to the global economy and compound the damage to the US itself.” At 6.31 the SMH account tweeted, “Comment: Now Trump wants a tit-for-tat stoush with Europe, no wonder markets are fearful.”

On 5 October the SMH ran a kicker that went, “We watched in puzzlement as the world unleashed an armoury of unconventional policies. Now it's our turn.” The story was about the Reserve Bank of Australia’s recent decision to drop the cash rate – the rate of interest banks have to pay to borrow money – to 0.75 percent.

Biblical metaphors

On 30 September the SMH ran a story with the headline, “'Retail apocalypse' claims another scalp as Forever 21 files for bankruptcy.” In the story it wasn’t clear where the expression came from there is a paragraph that goes like this:
Forever 21's bankruptcy is the latest in a long chain of collapses, store closures and similar bankruptcy claims, with prominent US retailers such as Sears, Toys 'R' Us, J. C. Penney, Barneys and Macy's all falling victim to the 'retail apocalypse'.
But the quote wasn’t attributed to anyone in particular. It appears to have been an invention of the journalist.

On 25 September at 1.51pm the Australian’s account tweeted, “Fallen rugby star Israel Folau conceded breaching Rugby Australia’s Code of Conduct over social media posts when he was before the Tribunal in May and offered to make a public apology, court documents reveal.” The tweet came with a link to a story on the news outlet’s website.

Boxing metaphors

On 24 September at 10.23am News dot com tweeted, “Living treasure and ecowarrior Sir David Attenborough has unleashed a scathing attack on Australia, saying we “don’t give a damn” about the world. He has also taken a swipe at @ScottMorrisonMP.” The tweet came with a link to a story on its website that read, “Sir David Attenborough slams PM Scott Morrison’s climate change track record.”

On 2 October the SMH ran a kicker that went, “NAB to take a heavy hit on back of more compensation payouts to clients charged for financial advice that was not delivered, refunds for dubious insurance, and software accounting changes.” “NAB” is the National Australia Bank, one of the largest companies in the country. The company had been embarrassed during a royal commission that established on 14 December 2017 by the Australian government. The final report was delivered to the governor-general on 1 February 2019.

Metaphors evoking madness

On 24 September the SMH used a kicker for a story on its home page that went like this, “Prime Minister Scott Morrison came face to face with a frenzied political force unlike anything an Australian election can produce.”

Metaphors evoking disaster due to fire

On 25 September the SMH ran a kicker for a story that went like this: “The Morrison government has moved to contain the blowback over its declaration that China is no longer a developing nation.”

On 25 September in the evening, the SMH ran a headline for a story about the Mascot Towers building that had started to show serious structural faults following its construction and after people had invested money buying units in it. The headline went, “'Absolutely gutting': Mascot Towers owners slam minister's claims.”

Metaphors evoking disaster due to cold

On 28 September the SMH ran a kicker that went, “Police uncovered a series of 'chilling' videos shot by murderers Schmegelsky and McLeod where they detailed their plans to steal a boat and escape to Africa.” The reference was to the murder of an Australian and his American girlfriend in Canada that had taken place in July. The adjective in inverted commas was one that had been used by the Royal Mounted Police.

Nautical metaphors

On 27 September the SMH ran a kicker to a story on its homepage that went, “He went to his first AFL game in 2014 after immigrating from India. Now his family home is a sea of orange.” The reference was to the Australian Football League, which uses a unique code and set of rules and is played around the country but especially in the states of Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia.

Metaphors evoking the action of injustice

On 25 September in the afternoon a story appeared on the SMH website with the headline, “'Witch hunt garbage': Trump lashes out after impeachment announcement.”

On 3 October the SMH ran a kicker that went like this, “The closest galaxy to the Milky Way, Andromeda, is cannibalising smaller galaxies on its way towards us.” This is an unremarkable metaphor, though perhaps not a very sensitive one as some might say it reflects an outdated colonialist approach to human cultural diversity.

Metaphors evoking civil disturbance

On 3 October the SMH ran a kicker about the stock market downturn. It went, “It’s not just Australia where shares are under the pump with Japanese and South Korean markets joining the global rout.” At 3.25pm the SMH account tweeted, “Markets Live: $40 billion wiped away as ASX joins global rout.” The ASX is the Australian Stock Exchange, based in Sydney.

On 5 October the SMH ran a headline on its homepage that went, “I am the whistleblower who lit the fuse under a financial giant. It cost me dearly.” The kicker went, “The whistleblower who revealed serious wrongdoing at IOOF speaks for the first time about blowing the whistle and the toll it took on his mental health and relationships.” “IOOF” stands for IOOF Holdings Limited, a company that offers services such as financial advice and superannuation. According to Wikipedia the company originated in Melbourne in 1846 as the Victoria Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The story was written by the whistleblower and the first sentence went:
I am the IOOF whistleblower. It was me who lit the fuse under a financial giant and now choose to tell my story of what happened and the toll it took.

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