Hyperbole on the Front Page

The WSJ’s stylebook editor, Paul Martin, issues a hyperbole alert:

In times of economic anxiety, it is tempting to use scary words to try to dramatize the situation. But we should curb the urge.

"Plummet? A highway-tax revenue decline of 3.7% is a plummet?" a reader asked in a letter to the editor…

A recent story on bank stocks, for example, was over the top with clich├ęd allusions to growing glut, bites the bullet and the mixed metaphor ahead of the curve over the past year in sounding the alarm. The story also said banks are being forced to slash their dividends. Doesn’t anyone just cut the dividend anymore?

This is all true and well worth repeating. But I’d also point out that the story in question was a front-pager.

Aren’t front-page stories meant to be edited more assiduously? Yes — but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The more editors there are on any given piece, the more likely it is that you’ll have someone asking the journalists to beef things up a little, make the story more compelling, make it worthy of its A1 placement.

This is probably even more true now that the WSJ is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and business stories are ever-rarer on the front page: that means they need to clear ever-higher hurdles to get there. If journalists and editors are trying to prove their story worthy of the front page, they will naturally, unconsciously, tend to hyperbole. Which is why it’s good that they have Paul Martin breathing over their shoulder, telling them to "think first".

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