Reader’s guide on stock phrases reporters use to liven up stories


Today, I want to focus on the stock phrases and words reporters use and the meaning they assign them.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

I wrote about clichés more than a year ago, pointing out that sometimes they are acceptable or unavoidable.

However, using them instead of original, fresh and specific wording is lazy and hazy journalism (“New Year resolution for editors: Stop ‘crying all the way to the bank’ cliché” — Daily Nation, January 1, 2021).

Today, I want to focus on the stock phrases and words reporters use and the meaning they assign them.

A stock phrase is defined as an expression frequently or habitually used by a person or group and is thus associated with them.

“My friend”, for example, is a stock phrase associated with Deputy President William Ruto. Its meaning goes beyond its literal interpretation.

Reporters, too, use stock phrases that often have meanings beyond their literal interpretation.

The supply of stock phrases and words is not inconsiderable. Here we can only look at them in categories. The first category is idiomatic expressions.

Examples: Ghosts return or come back to haunt, hit the ground running, chickens come home to roost, the elephant in the room, meteoric rise, (only) time will tell, and so on.

Some of these expressions may be clichés but they fit the definition of stock words and phrases.

The second category consists of ordinary words that are used in such a way that they become almost words of art in reporting. Examples: Sources, observers, insiders, experts, pundits, confidential sources, no comment, and suchlike.

For reporters, stock phrases and words save time, effort and, sometimes, face too.

Let me explain this by looking at the idiomatic expression “(only) time will tell”.

The literal meaning of the phrase is that the results of a situation will be known only after a certain amount of time has passed.

However, reporters often use the phrase in articles in which they are analysing a situation, assessing the truth or correctness of something.

They use the expression often to bluff when they are clueless and do not want to look ignorant to the reader.

Examples (from Nation articles): “Godspeed to Dr Matiang’i, but only time will tell whether he has done his homework”; “Handshakes can change history, but only time will tell”; “Only time will tell how caps on bank interest rates will play out.” A variant of “(only) time will tell” is “what remains to be seen”. Example: “What remains to be seen is whether realpolitik will triumph over common sense when voters go to the booth.”

Let me conclude by looking at the second category of stock phrases and words, specifically those expressions reporters use when news sources do not talk to them when they are gathering information for stories. They have a stock of them—including “no comment”, “could not be reached for comment”, and “did not pick up our calls or respond to email messages”, and similar expressions.

Reporters assign many different meanings to those words, depending on the story. “No comment”, for example, does not mean no comment. It could mean the news source has something to hide or is afraid of media exposure. It could mean the source is truly not available for comment. Or the journalist wants to expose the source for possible public flogging for not talking to the Press!

Examples: “The retail chain’s chief executive, Dan Githua, declined to comment on the closure of what has been one of its biggest stores with multiple floors; ‘No comment for now,’ said Mr Githua in response to our queries”; “Mr Mutua, who acted for Malili Ranch Ltd, did not respond to our phone calls or SMS questions”; “We wrote to the President and his family with detailed questions and gave them ample time to respond. They did not do so.”

The reader may assign any meaning to those “no-comment” statements but reporters will often know what message they want to convey to the reader.

The stock phrases and words reporters use can acquire non-dictionary meanings, which can change with the story and context. They give reporters the flexibility to comment on stories without seeming to do so. And that is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as the reader is in the know.

The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected] Call or text 0721989264


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