Shooting the messengers

A firing squad: sometimes it's not so much about who to to shoot, as who to save

Having been distracted by a research project that was like a giant, academic version of Talk Normal, I’m even more convinced of the power of the dark forces that would undermine our work. On the other hand, I’m less certain who the dark forces are.

It’s always easy to blame PR companies and their often laughable press releases for the pain of irritating jargon. In the UK, at least, that’s not the end of the story.

Let me show you why: I did some research which measured the frequency of the top seven jargon phrases identified in David Meerman Scott’s Gobbledygook Manifesto in 2006, which I already used as the source to find the worst press release in history. I looked at the frequency of these seven jargon phrases since 1990. While the use of jargon has increased dramatically – especially during the 1990s – the frequency of the jargon phrases was consistently approximately equal in newspapers and press releases in the UK.

So in the UK, on this (admittedly limited) evidence, jargon’s not just a PR company problem.

In the graph below, each blob maps the relative frequency of a jargon phrase in one year. If it’s on the diagonal line, it appears equally frequently in newspapers and press releases in that year.

Below the diagonal line, and the phrase is more frequent in press releases. Above it, and it’s more more frequent in the press. I used only major news sources and newswires, not geeky jargon-filled magazines.

As an aside, I did a similar plot for US sources, and the same jargon phrases are between 10 and 20 times more frequent in US press releases as they are in US news; and US news has much less jargon than UK news. So the conclusion that I draw is that, if a journalist’s job is partly about weeding out jargon from its raw material, American journalists are doing a good job and British journalists are doing a rubbish one.

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