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Weasel Words And Journalism Its Either True Or It Isnt

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Patrick Smith, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog


19:45 UPDATE

And guess what? CBS has now released as a statement, (via HuffPo. It says: "Serene Branson was examined by paramedics on scene immediately after her broadcast. Her vital signs were normal. She was not hospitalized. As a precautionary measure, a colleague gave her a ride home and she says that she is feeling fine this morning."

So: a) she didn't have a stroke, b) she wasn't hospitalised and c) don't believe anything you read that doesn't have a corroborating source or confirmation.

Original: The CBS journalist Serene Branson has become world-famous, but not in the way she would have liked.

The twice-Emmy nominee was presenting from LA at the Grammy awards but during a live link she stumbled on her words and entire sentences descended into garbled, stuttering nonsense. The 17-second YouTube clip went viral, went global and no doubt made a lot of people laugh, including, to be honest, myself.

But all may not be well. According to Telegraph.co.uk, Branson has been hospitalised due to fears she was suffering the early stages of a stroke. I'm not embedding the clip here as I find the ethics of encouraging people to watch someone (quite possibly) having a stroke somewhat screen questionable, however good the page views.

Yet don't bank on that: the Telegraph says the journalist was "reportedly" taken to hospital. It does not name the source, nor mention where such a report is from. The headline reads:

Serene Branson 'hospitalised after Grammy's speech problems'

The use of speech marks does not denote speech here: it's a way of saying "we don't know if this is true". The article has no byline - there is no reporter to ask or for the public to question.

The Telegraph's superb SEO practices mean the story is the first result for a "Serene Branson" search and I have no doubt that thousands of people will be watching the embedded video on that story, with its advertising from Citroen. Almost 200 people have recommended it on Facebook.

And even though the Telegraph has no evidence (or is not displaying it) for the hospitalisation claim, other media are citing it as a source. The NY Daily News says:

"Branson was taken to the hospital after the broadcast according to a report from London'sDaily Telegraph."

The Sun pitches in with its own reporting (emphasis is mine):

"It has since been reported that she was taken to hospital because of fears she may have suffered a stroke."

May have? Reported by whom? When? Is it from the wires? A rival? Or do you just not know?

One of the apparent "online sources" media are using is @QueenOfSpain, AKA Erin Kotecki Vest, a social media strategist for US female-centric BlogHer (which is, incidentally, a fascinating company and a long-standing online content survivor).

She tweeted: "Headed to bed but I have a CBS source confirming Serene Branson is, in fact, at the hospital being checked out #CBS2 #serenebranson"

One of my favourite guides to online editing is Wikipedia's Manual of Style. It is designed to tell editors and Wikipedia contributors what's good and bad about Wiki entries, but its advice fits for journalism too:

"... some people say, it is believed, many are of the opinion, most feel, experts declare, it is often reported, it is widely thought, research has shown, science says, it was proven

"Phrases such as these present the appearance of support for statements but can deny the reader the opportunity to assess the source of the viewpoint. They are referred to as "weasel words" by Wikipedia contributors. They can pad out sentences without adding any useful information and may disguise a biased view.

"Claims about what people say, think, feel, or believe, and what has been shown, demonstrated, or proven should be clearly attributed."

Is this a British phenomenon? My former boss Rafat Ali (for whom I worked at the very excellent paidContent:UK) said on Twitter while discussing this that the UK media tendency to use the phrase "reportedly" had irritated him. He wonders if it's "primarily a British contruct". I'd say it probably is.

This may not matter to you - UK newspapers/websites report a lot of stuff, and who cares if not everything is stood up and confirmed? But if minor, low-level stuff can be wrong, what about the stuff that does matter? On this, it's worth revisiting the thoughts of Heather Brooke, an investigative reporter who learned her trade in the US, on UK media and anonymous sources, seen here in Charlie Brooker's Newswipe programme

Journalists should remember that the public don't make the subtle distinctions reporters do when it comes to the unfolding news narrative - for the ordinary person, something is either true or it is not. "Reported" for them means: "this happened".

Imagine it wasn't a reporter you may or may not have heard of, but a friend or family member that was being laughed at on laptop screens around the world. If she is in hospital, you would want the media to show restraint; if she is not you would want them to get it right.

I've contacted CBS in Los Angeles and will update this if I hear anything.

Also, Dave Lee writes about how quickly coverage of the video spread and how treatment of the story changed once people realised there could be a tragic element.

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