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Dear reporters, do not be afraid of plain English

By Kodi Barth

Here in journalism we write to communicate. Not to impress. Not to floss. Not to win a vocabulary contest. None of that. We write to say what happened. Or what is happening.

The only way to do that well, dear reporters, is to do it like you would speak with your mother — in plain language. Do it quickly, without bells and whistles. And because you are journalists, do it with a healthy dose of scepticism. Because your job is not to parrot your sources, but to find the truth and tell it as cleanly as you can, without stepping into it yourself. That’s all.

We sampled recent examples where reporters failed these simple guidelines.

  • Daily Nation, December 19, 2023:Carrefour hit with ‘record’ Sh1.1bn fine over abuse of buyer power.”

What is abuse of buyer power? This is about the only thing a reader wants to know the moment they read that heading. But the story did not once explain it, leaving the reader hanging with fancy vocabulary, wondering if the reporter even knew what it meant.

  • The Standard, December 19, 2023; “Carrefour Supermarket fined Sh1.1bn for unfair treatment of suppliers”.

Aha, The Standard to the rescue, right from the heading!

The story started: “Carrefour Supermarket has been slapped with a fine of Sh1.1 billion by the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) for unfair treatment of its suppliers.” And it went on to narrate and educate in plain English. Thank you, Standard!

  • People Daily, December 28, 2023: “Treasury sets record straight on Eurobond payment.”

In this story the writer did not know when to report, when to paraphrase, and when not to parrot.

The intro said: “The National Treasury has set the record straight on Kenya’s payment of the $2 billion Eurobond”.

Set the record straight, huh? According to whom, you?

The paper wrote: “The ministry has explained its position and how the payment will be settled as agreed by the lenders”.

And what was the explanation?

“In its unwavering commitment to upholding a resilient sovereign credit rating and facilitating access to new development financing, Kenya remains dedicated to fulfilling all debt obligations with international lenders.”

Really? In its unwavering what? Do tell; are you the Government Spokesperson or a journalist?

The story had 12 paragraphs. Five, or 42 per cent, were verbatim block quotes from “The communiqué from the Treasury”. The reporter was marketing the Treasury, not reporting.

Remember, the newspaper should be read by an eighth-grade pupil. So, do not be afraid of writing in plain English. Write like you would speak with your mother, will you?

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