One Man’s Keywords are Another Man’s List of Forbidden ‘Newsspeak’ Words and Phrases

My sympathy goes out to the search engine optimizers for large media companies. While they are trying to get journalists to understand the value of using keywords, journalists often confuse that with using a list of forbidden “newsspeak” words and phrases.

Alice stepping through the looking-glass

Image via Wikipedia

The latest example of what could be called the sequel to “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There” comes from Chicago. It got started when Robert Feder, who happily says he’s been “serving up scoops and dishing dirt since 1980” posted “Memo puts WGN news staffers at a lost for word” on

Feder reported that Tribune Company CEO Randy Michaels had issued a “list of forbidden ‘newsspeak’ words and phrases” in a memo to his staff of anchors and reporters on WGN-AM (720), the news/talk radio station in Chicago. The list includes:

    • 5 a.m. in the morning


    • After the break


    • After these commercial messages


    • Aftermath


    • All of you


    • Allegations


    • Alleged


    • Area residents


    • As expected


    • At risk


    • At this point in time


    • Authorities


    • Auto accident


    • Bare naked


    • Behind bars


    • Behind closed doors


    • Behind the podium (you mean lecturn) [sic]


    • Best kept secret


    • Campaign trail


    • Clash with police


    • Close proximity


    • Complete surprise


    • Completely destroyed, completely abolished, completely finished or any other completely redundant use


    • Death toll


    • Definitely possible


    • Diva


    • Down in (location)


    • Down there


    • Dubbaya when you mean double you


    • Everybody (when referring to the audience)


    • Eye Rack or Eye Ran


    • False pretenses


    • Famed


    • Fatal death


    • Fled on foot


    • “Flee” meaning “run away”


    • Folks


    • Giving 110%


    • Going forward


    • “Good” or “bad” news


    • Gunman, especially lone gunman


    • Guys


    • Hunnert when you mean hundred


    • Icon


    • In a surprise move


    • In harm’s way


    • In other news


    • In the wake of (unless it’s a boating story)


    • Incarcerated


    • Informed sources say . . .


    • Killing spree


    • “Laud” meaning “praise”


    • Legendary


    • Lend a helping hand


    • Literally


    • Lucky to be alive


    • Manhunt


    • Marred


    • Medical hospital


    • Mother of all (anything)


    • Motorist


    • Mute point. (It’s moot point, but don’t say that either)


    • Near miss


    • No brainer


    • Officials


    • Our top story tonight


    • Out in (location)


    • Out there


    • Over in


    • Pedestrian


    • Perfect storm


    • Perished


    • Perpetrator


    • Plagued


    • Really


    • Reeling


    • Reportedly


    • “Seek” meaning “look for”


    • Senseless murder


    • Shots rang out


    • Shower activity


    • Sketchy details


    • “Some” meaning “about”


    • Some of you


    • Sources say . . .


    • Speaking out


    • Stay tuned


    • The fact of the matter


    • Those of you


    • Thus


    • Time for a break


    • To be fair


    • Torrential rain


    • Touch base


    • “Two to one margin” . . . “Two to one” is a ratio, not a margin. A margin is measured in points. It’s not a ratio.


    • Under fire


    • Under siege


    • Underwent surgery


    • Undisclosed


    • Undocumented alien


    • Unrest


    • Untimely death


    • Up in (location)


    • Up there


    • Utilize (you mean use)


    • Vehicle


    • We’ll be right back


    • Welcome back


    • Welcome back everybody


    • We’ll be back


    • Went terribly wrong


    • We’re back


    • White stuff


    • World class


    • “Yesterday” in a lead sentence


    • You folks


    • “Youth” meaning “child”


Now, any SEO who has worked with media companies knows how problematic it is to give online journalists and bloggers a list of keywords that they should use, let alone a list of forbidden “newsspeak” words and phrases that they shouldn’t use. In fact, I still refer online editors to the now classic article by Steve Lohr of The New York Times that is entitled, “The Boring Headline Is Written for Google.”

But what’s the harm — especially when you are talking to radio anchors and reporters of “newsspeak” words and phrases that shouldn’t be used?

Hey, the search engines don’t index audio yet, do they? No, but according to Peter Norvig, who spearheads Google’s wide-ranging research efforts, Google is developing Speech Recognition, which automatically transcribes videos from YouTube’s Politicians channels from speech to text. And YouTube now automatically captions your videos. Hey, I don’t make this stuff up.

So, word choice — even on the radio or in video interviews — may be an important factor in getting found for relevant searches in the near future.

By the way, the brouhaha over forbidden “newsspeak” words and phrases has prompted Eric Seidel, CEO of The Media Trainers, LLC, to post “The Executive the Media Misjudge” on Executive Rewind: Handling the News Media.

According to Seidel, “Frankly, it’s clear that more than a few are hoping this executive will fail and are doing all they can to make that happen. My money is on the executive.”

He adds, “This must be their way of resisting change, something that’s very scary to them. But in their industry, change is mandatory for survival.”

What do I think? Yes, words matter. And, yes, change is very scary — but mandatory for survival.

But no journalist will respond well to being handed a list of search terms to use or a list of trite clichés to avoid using. That’s why it is important to teach journalists how to do keyword research themselves, so they get to decide which words and phrases are relevant and important to their story. That way, journalists get to discover what their readers, listeners and viewers are searching for — and the likelihood of another brouhaha breaking out is minimized.

Earlier today, in my post “Pew Internet Project Describes the State of Online News as Moving Target,” I suggested that marketers attend the sessions on “News Search Optimization” and “Real Time SEO: No More Yesterday’s News” at SES New York 2010, which is being held next week.

On reflection, the people who really should attend are editors and journalists, including anchors and reporters at TV and radio stations. If they don’t learn how to conduct keyword research themselves, they may not be writing for anyone in the near future.

This isn’t some edict from the boss. This is what I’ve learned by reading The State of the News Media 2010, the annual report on American journalism by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. Hey, I don’t make this stuff up.

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