It’s Every Editor’s Worst Nightmare / 16 октября 2007 г.

And it’ll take over the world if we don’t stamp it out now, says Don Gibb.

Copyright © News Design Associates Inc.

At this very moment, there’s a reporter in some newsroom somewhere in the world cranking out another PWN story. It could be a reporter at The South China Morning Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Toronto Star. Or it could be CNN international celeb-talker Larry King.

PWN is the king of all journalism clichés these days. It has appeared as a lead, a quote or simply a line in more than 170 newspaper and television stories I’ve called up on a computer network search. Find: Parent’s / Worst / Nightmare.

Usually, PWN describes a tragedy in which a child has been killed or hurt.

My first encounter with a parent’s-worstnightmare lead suggested someone’s PWN was their son purposely setting fire to their house.

Got trouble with that one. If I had a list of 20 parent’s worst nightmares, it would not make it. Same goes for Beavis and Butt-head, the Rolling Stones and shopping malls. They’ve all cropped up as a PWN.

Sample some of the bad dreams:

“Good evening from New York. The story of Polly Klass’ abduction and murder is a parent’s worst nightmare …” — Larry King Live on CNN.

The tragic case rated at least three other worst-nightmare leads on American TV and in newspapers.

“The first few times a toddler bites Mommy or Daddy on the finger, they may think it’s kind of cute. But if it becomes a daily occurrence, or the child bites a schoolmate, it can be … (you guessed it) … a parent’s worst nightmare.” — Montreal Gazette.

“Wait and See by (children’s author) Robert Munsch: turns a little girl’s blow-out-the-birthday-candles wish into every p… w…. n…” — Ottawa Citizen.

And on and on and on. From the tragic and serious to the ridiculous, a PWN stands for anything.

Often, the references deal with death, crime, dreadful accidents or deadly disease: Murder, rape, abduction, missing kids, cancer, meningitis, traffic accidents.

But they know no bounds. Take a look:

“The Good Son … is a deviously titled, ultimately unpleasant thriller that stars Macaulay Caulkin as every parent’s worst nightmare.” — San Francisco Chronicle.

“With its assortment of furry bra tops, black leather lace-up bustiers and rosaries (for wearing, not praying), the Electric Chair (store) could well be a p… w… n…” — Los Angeles Times.

“It’s only in the past 10 years or so that the (Rolling) Stones stopped being a (you-know-what).” — Toronto Star.

What is this fascination with the nightmare lead?

As one who has written his share of cliché leads, let me suggest it has a lot to do with the excruciating agony of writing that first sentence. So much pressure to get just the right introduction. Make it light, tight and bright; make it clear, concise and straightforward; make it interesting; keep it short.

No question, PWN has a nice ring to it. Catchy. It’s got rhythm and it’s handy — right there in the back of your mind. ‘Don’t know where I first heard it, but I think I’ll try it.’

You and a million other reporters.

I recall reading a piece on writing tips that said a catchy phrase can work on the right story — for the first reporter to use it (remember where’s the beef, here come the judge, mother-of-all etc., etc., etc.). It might even be fresh enough for the next two or three reporters and their stories.

But by then, it has run its course. It’s stale, trite and trivial.

PWN has had an abnormally long run. My list contains more than 50 varieties — more nightmares than I could possibly think up on my own.

And as if the simple every-parent’s-worst-nightmare weren’t good enough, we have the hybrids:

“It’s the worst nightmare of parents whose children ski” (a racer slamming into another skier). — Calgary Herald.

“A year ago, San Diegan Pam Murrell experienced every working parent’s worst nightmare.” — San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Shooting a person is every cop’s worst nightmare.” — CFTO-TV, Toronto.

“It was a PWN, but this story has a happy ending (teenager got lost on way home to her new house)” — Calgary Herald.

Just a thought: Did the reporter already have the standard PWN lead in the system, then figure tacking on a happy ending to a nightmare was a nice twist?

“Our child throws himself down in the middle of a shopping mall and begins to wail. Almost every parent’s worst nightmare.” — Ottawa Citizen.

Shopping malls, grunge, babies switched at birth, an extra fiveday school holiday, religious cults, autism, heroin snorting …

PWN certainly tops a long list of classic clichés, which include:

— People responded with mixed reactions today to …

— Rain failed to dampen the spirits ….

— Imagine you’re on a tropical island. Imagine … (it keeps on going, just like that battery commercial).

— This quiet, working-class suburb with its tree-lined streets is in shock today after the brutal murder …

— And: What do such and such have in common?

— Something is done thanks to …

— Something is said: That’s what so and so thinks...

For the good of journalism and to show compassion for our readers, let’s stamp them out. But, please, begin with IT’S A PARENT’S WORST NIGHTMARE.

Retire the Nightmare on Copy Desk Street …please.

Don Gibb teaches reporting at Ryerson Polytechnic’s School of Journalism in Toronto. He is the author of two books: How to Write the Perfect Lead and How to Get the Most from Your Interviews.

P.S. It’s Don. I’m back again! It’s everywhere. I just picked up a book, The Nanny Murder Trial, by Don Davis. On the back cover in boldface: It was every parent’s worst nightmare.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh …

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