Sunday, March 15, 2009

That six-word phrase is back

In case you thought everybody was kidding last week about the frequency of the string "before turning the gun on himself," here it is again in real life.

A Language Log commenter offers an interesting observation: In some contexts, including journalism and science writing, recourse to boilerplate may actually help persuade editors and referees that the work meets professional standards; if a paper says "the animals were sacrificed" it's science, if it says "I killed the mice" it's macabre, though the event is the same.

That might be a view from the bleachers, or it might be a summary from a disguised professional; either way, it's a good account of how routines work. If you need a slightly more formal cite, may we recommend Gaye Tuchman's 1972 "Objectivity as strategic ritual" (American Journal of Sociology, 77, 660-679)? This is from the abstract:

This article examines three factors which help a newsman to define an "objective fact": form, content, and interorganizational relationships. It shows that in discussing content and interorganizational relationships, the newsman can only invoke his news judgment; however, he can claim objectivity by citing procedures he has followed which exemplify the formal attributes of a news history or a newspaper. For instance, the newsman can suggest that he quoted other people instead of offering his own opinions. ... "Objectivity" may be seen as a strategic ritual protecting newspapermen from the risks of their trade.

Tuchman also offers this charmingly turned image: "Attacked for a controversial presentation of 'facts,' newspapermen invoke their objectivity almost the way a Mediterranean peasant might wear a clove of garlic around his neck to ward off evil spirits." Makes you think we're leaving something out of the curriculum, doesn't it?

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