[ASC-list] World class

Dr Rob Morrison rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Fri Jun 4 21:16:56 UTC 2010

This topic, which has run before, seems to polarise people into those 
who hate the use of such cliches, and those who think that, for some 
reason, editors will love them and be favourably disposed to the 
"release" that contains them. A bit of evidence-based exploration is 
probably due here. 

I have gone on the record for a while as being an opponent of 
"cutting-edge," "leading-edge," and especially "breakthrough" nonsense 
in these media releases, and it is more than just the grumpy whining of 
an ageing pedant.

Julian and others, while disliking the terms, defend them on the basis 
that they encourage editors to include the story in their bulletins, and 
say that is how newsrooms work. Perhaps some do, and others did once, 
before the terms became cliched. There is certainly evidence to the 
contrary.  I have worked in the newsrooms of several stations for years, 
and I know from my own experience that there are editors who view this 
stuff with (usually well deserved) scorn for the hyperbole it often is. 
As the science specialist I was often handed science stories to see if 
they should run. My own reaction to "breakthroughs" was immediately one 
of suspicion, and I was often right in that judgement. I ran other 
stories in which the writer had used careful writing explain why some 
reseach was significant and bothered to make clear why our audience(s) 
would find it so.

We also talked about this matter at a Board meeting of the AusSMC here. 
Garry Linnell, then the Editor of Bulletin and subsequently Nine 
Network, Telegraph etc, was openly scathing about such releases, saying 
that every second science release seemed to describe a "breakthrough" 
and that, when he received them, he binned them on the spot. He also 
said that "Someone should tell them not to do it."  Who should do that 
but the ASC?

When Susan Greenfield was our Thinker in Residence, I was on a panel 
with her and others to look at Science in the Media. Questions from the 
floor about "breakthroughs" led another editor on the panel to say he 
rejected them almost immediately, as (a) usually he couldn't understand 
the science described and (b)he could usually sense that someone wanted 
to use his media outlet for PR or for increasing their chances of 
getting their next grant. 

Not all editors are swayed by these hackneyed terms, and why would they 
be? I surveyed some media releases on Eurekalert a while back - 5000 
plus, and half of them had "breakthrough" as their descriptor of the 
work done. "Cutting-Edge" and "Groundbreaking" scored absurdly highly as 

I maintain that we should discourage this nonsense because:

1. it is sloppy. If the work is significant, explain why - tell the 
story; do as Jen does and explain why others should recognise it as 
2. it debases the currency. If every minor discovery is a 
"breakthrough,"  what do you have left for Marshall and Warren or 
Frazier when they come along?
3. if you get something really substantial and call it a breakthrough, 
how is it distinguishable for the puff-pieces that surround it 
describing minor work in the same terms?
4. it certainly doesn't "work" with many editors, who view it with scorn 
and discard the releases;
5. cliches of any kind are irritating. The media are full of them, and 
they are often hyperbolic to a ludicrous degree, as when a "tragedy" 
describes someone missing a goal or some sporting "hero" pulling a 
6. we ought to be encouraging science communicators to communicate well. 
Communicating in cliches is not doing that.

They almost always diminish the power of a story and suggest a writer's 
mind assembling verbal lego rather than writing well. The media are full 
of them. Any accident in a small town seems immediately to turn it into 
a "close-knit community," and do you ever see anyone reported of dying 
from cancer who hasn't died "after a long battle with cancer?" Sporting 
teams get :"bundled out" while gangsters are "gunned down." Australia's 
outback environment is invariably "harsh" when it is not "fragile" and, 
like me, you probably never want to hear again that South Australia is 
the "driest state in the driest continent." etc etc. Even writers of 
letters to the editor seem oddly afflicted by the feeling that writing 
for the media almost requires cliches. Where else these days do you read 
"Methinks" or "It never ceases to amaze me..." but in letters to the Editor?


Dr Rob Morrison
Email: rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Phone: +61 8 8339 3790
Fax:   +61 8 8339 6272

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