It’s one of those debates among journalists that are never satisfactorily resolved. How much should you assume your readers know?
In sport, the assumption seems to be that readers know lots, otherwise they wouldn’t be reading the sports section. Hence no effort is made to explain why an overcast sky can make a difference in a cricket test, or what a mankad is.
Lately I've read several references to the influence cloud can have on the outcome of a cricket match - the latest example occurring in yesterday’s Dominion Post preview of the first test against South Africa - but I’m no closer to understanding why. Sports journalists clearly don’t feel any need to explain. It’s assumed that anyone reading these stories has been initiated into the ineffable mysteries of cricket and would probably be irritated if they were spelled out.
And don’t even get me started on the vagaries of pitches, which are routinely referred to in language that’s as impenetrable to me as Urdu. Fairfax sports reporter Mark Geenty managed to squeeze two cryptic references (by which I mean cryptic to anyone who isn’t a cricket geek) into one sentence yesterday when he wrote that cloud cover and swing bowling were likely to have a bigger say on the outcome of the first test than a pitch with the living daylights rolled out of it. Then he made things worse by quoting Daniel Vettori: “Overhead conditions dictate what it’s going to be like. You talk to the Otago guys and they say it’s a completely different wicket depending on the overhead conditions.”
A little elaboration would have been appreciated. Surely I’m not the only person reading the sports pages who scratches his head when he comes across statements like these?
Similarly, only a few weeks ago in the Dom Post sports pages I read a reference to something called a mankad. What could this be, I wondered – some sort of grotesque garment, perhaps, like the mankini made famous in the movie Borat?
Well, no. It turns out that it’s a controversial run-out in cricket, one that’s regarded as poor form and not in the traditions of the game. The name comes from its original perpetrator, Indian cricketer Vinoo Mankad, who pulled the stunt in 1947 and whose name, as a result, lives in cricketing infamy. Should your average reader be expected to know this? Is it reasonable to expect them to go to their computer keyboard and google the word to satisfy their curiosity?
There’s no simple answer to this. I would argue that in the case of the mankad, it would have been a simple matter – and a courtesy to readers – to slip in a sentence enlightening the ignorant. But such matters are not always straightforward.
Years ago there was spirited debate in newspaper newsrooms about whether it was necessary to explain what Maori words such as hui, iwi and whanau meant. At what point do we accept that such terms have entered common usage and no longer need their meaning spelled out? There’s no sharp, clear line to help journalists make these decisions. It’s probably safe to assume, after all this time, that such common Maori words are well understood; yet even now there are probably people in New Zealand who mutter resentfully whenever they encounter them.
Certainly it can be exasperating to encounter a word or phrase whose meaning isn’t clear. My late colleague Frank Haden used to rage against the use of foreign expressions in newspaper stories, partly because journalists more often than not got them wrong ("Wankers!" Frank would thunder), but more because he regarded it as a form of one-upmanship over readers and therefore bound to get their backs up. I know what he meant, because I subscribe to The Spectator and often stumble over Latin or French words and phrases written by people who have doubtless received a classical education at Oxford or Cambridge and probably assume all Spectator readers have done likewise.
Yet there is a powerful counter-argument that I would deploy in debate with Frank. A newspaper or magazine can just as easily insult its readers’ intelligence by treating them as if they have the reading level of 10-year-olds as offend them by going over their heads with high-falutin’ language. The line between the two isn’t sharply defined and a good paper will constantly cross from one side to the other. Apart from anything else, how can people’s vocabularies expand if not by being exposed to new words? If the reader is occasionally provoked into picking up a dictionary to check a meaning, as I am, then surely that’s no bad thing.
Where newspapers can avoid antagonising readers is by shunning exclusive jargon. This is most commonly encountered in sections such as sport and business, where journalists can safely assume they are writing for an audience with a higher degree of specialist knowledge than those reading the general news pages. Here the line becomes even fuzzier, and it’s all too easy for journalists to fall into the trap of using “in” jargon to demonstrate their familiarity with the subject. This may signal to the cognoscenti who read those pages that the journalist is up with the play, as it were, but it breaches the basic principle that the purpose of journalism is to communicate to the widest audience possible – not to a narrow clique of insiders.
Some business stories are damned near incomprehensible, but here we encounter another problem: spelling everything out in words that anyone can understand, particularly where the subject is complex (as is often the case with business stories), is not only cumbersome but consumes precious space.
As with so many things, it’s a question of balance. And at the moment, I don’t think the journalists who write for sports and business pages always get the balance right.