We journalists love our aphorisms. One of them popped into my Tweet stream this morning:

“News is something everyone wants to repress. The rest is advertising.”

(The most-loved it would seem, based on how often we hear it, is: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”)

All such sayings are cute and pithy. They trip lightly off the tongue. But they are gift horses whose mouths clearly need to be examined.

“News is something everyone wants to repress. The rest is advertising.” Umm, no. If you think that’s true, what’s the advertising message of the Haitian earthquake?

It sounds good. It makes journalists burst with pride at the special job they do of digging where the bodies may be, but it ignores the reality that while getting to the stuff no-one wants us to know is vital, it is hardly the biggest part of what most journalism is.

Like most aphorisms, it captures a bit of the truth, but nowhere near all of it, and it carries a disparaging tone for any storytelling that isn’t someone else’s secret. At its base — and at the base of the “if your mother says…” bit — is a sneer. These are not the aphorisms of questing journalists; they are the shorthand of the cynical.

In the past, I used these in various newsrooms. Now, in the classroom, I find myself urging students to know them, but to reject them, to think deeper about what lies behind them and which small bits of truth they contain might be useful.

Am I making too much of this? Possibly. But journalists, more than anyone, should be tuned into the power of words. Some new journalism aphorisms that contain a touch of humility, in place of great slabs of cynicism, might not be amiss.

Tags: , ,