Articles

When do Retro References Become a turn-off?

In Chattering classes/punditry, Journalism, media, off-beat on April 13, 2009 by Editor Z

Editor & Publisher warns journalists to cease the excessive use of retro references and old slang, (especially as it relates to old tv shows) or risk furthering their decline in readership.

This is retrotalk: employing terminology rooted in our past that may not be familiar to younger readers. Or immigrants. Or anyone at all, for that matter.

Journalists who lace their copy with such retro terms or names risk alienating those who are too young to get the allusions. Even common catch phrases that hearken back to earlier times may be puzzling to younger readers: stuck in a groove, 98-pound weakling, drop a dime, bigger than a breadbox, or a tough row to hoe. (As one giggling third-grader asked when his teacher used this one, “Isn’t ‘ho’ a bad word?”)

When a Minneapolis Star Tribune article included the line, “And by the way, have you stopped beating your wife?” many readers wondered why the paper would pose such an off-the-wall question. (Lawyers have long considered it a classic query that can’t be answered without self-incrimination.)

Making sense of the many verbal fossils in our lexicon requires familiarity with events that left behind a linguistic residue. We don’t all have that familiarity. As The Miami Herald‘s Leonard Pitts once discovered, “Everyone knows that” can be a risky assumption. Pitts’ editor, who grew up in a home without television, challenged his reference to Mayberry in a column. Wouldn’t readers wonder, “Where’s that?” she asked about the iconic small-town setting of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Point well taken, though I have to say those references to the antiquated still amuse me, though they leave most my age scratching their heads. When I was a kid I was marinated in re-runs of shows like “The Andy Griffith show” and “Bonanza” amongst others. I have also always had a great fondness for the entertainment of an earlier era. Still it is true that while by no means solely responsible for the decline in readership in newspapers,it is certainly not ameliorating it. Its almost like an inside joke that may amuse those who know about it but to everyone else it seems puzzling and even stupid. In the end though a middle ground should probably be forged. Personally I look at the employing of old television shows and other archaic cultural references should be used, but used in small supply. Its Keyan pepper, a little will have the desired affect.

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