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New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

gotcha journalism noun [U] /gtdnlz()m/
journalism that deliberately focuses on public figures in embarrassing or scandalous situations

gotcha journalist noun [U] /gtdnlst/

Gotcha Journalism is a cancer that threatens to undermine and destroy our democratic republic today, and increasingly so in this presidential election season.’
(, 29th January 2004)

‘What is striking is how little the truth seems to matter. The spin masters don’t want to know; what they don’t know, they don’t have to lie about. With gotcha journalists and subpoena-wielding lawyers lurking everywhere, no one wants to risk even minor admissions.’
(American Journalism Review, May 1998)

Candidates in the US presidential election of November 2004 were more than a little concerned about the popular media’s tendency to gotcha journalism:the compulsive reporting of those aspects of celebrity lives which are considered to be scandalous or embarrassing. Gotcha journalists are the authors of media coverage which is specifically designed to grab readers’ attention, regardless of the actual truth or relevance of the situations that are being reported.

Gotcha journalism has been endemic in the media for many decades, a particularly extreme form of which has often been described in English as a smear (campaign), a deliberate attempt to damage the reputation of a person in the public eye. The expression gotcha journalism, a more generic term for referring to media obsession with scandal and embarrassment, wasn’t coined until the late eighties however. The term is in fact itself based on a newspaper headline. On the 4th May 1982 the British newspaper The Sun published the headline GOTCHA! in relation to the sinking of the Argentinian battle cruiser General Belgrano during the Falklands War.

Amid subsequent criticism regarding the inappropriateness of such aggressive reporting, the word gotcha repeatedly emerged, providing the basis for a term that could be used to classify a brand of journalism which concentrated on reporting shocking facts. The word gotcha came into the language in the 1930s, an exclamation based on the contraction of the phrase (I have) got you, often used when publicly exposing someone to ridicule and so highly appropriate in journalistic contexts.

The recent presidential election in the US has been the focus of another recently named type of journalism. In the late nineties the expression horse-race journalism was coined to refer to media coverage which focuses on poll results and political battles (i.e.: who is ‘winning’) rather than important policy issues. Another recent coining in the same context which also incorporates the racing metaphor is frontrunneritis. This word is used to characterise the media’s tendency to focus coverage on individuals who seem to be the frontrunners either before or early within an election campaign, as has happened in recent months with Senator John Kerry. The term is of course a blend of frontrunner, ‘a contestant that is leading in a race or competition’ and –itis, a suffix often used informally to refer to a tendency or state of mind that is compared to some kind of disease, (e.g.: creditcarditis, and indeed in recent months Kerryitis in the context of the presidential elections).

Journalists who have been working long hours to follow the progress of the election campaign in the US will almost certainly be glad to feel the benefit of a lunch lid. This term has nothing to do with keeping sandwiches fresh in a plastic box! It was actually coined within White House offices to refer to the concept of not releasing any pieces of newsworthy information during journalists’ lunch breaks. The expression is presumably inspired by idiomatic phrases such as lift the lid on something (meaning ‘tell secrets’).

Tabloid journalists who tirelessly pursue politicians and other celebrities are now often informally referred to as the paperazzi. This is a play on the plural noun paparazzi, a derogatory term coined in the 1960s for a team of photographers who relentlessly pursue celebrities, based on the character Paparazzo, a news photographer in the 1960 film La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini.

In politics and business, so great is the concern about gotcha journalism and negative exposure in the media that in 2002 the term headline risk began to regularly appear in reference to the potential a person or thing has to generate an excessive amount of negative publicity. Underlying the concept of headline risk is the idea that if someone, usually a company or a politician, handles an initial amount of negative publicity badly by for example lying or covering up, they will generate the potential for more negative headlines, the media detecting a sensitivity which they quickly associate with scandal.

Of course politicians are quite happy to bask in any positive publicity arising from media coverage. What celebrities and politicians want from the paperazzi are news articles that emphasise positive aspects of their personality and behaviour. In journalistic circles these are often referred to as beat sweeteners, profiles of public figures which are flattering and non-critical. Beat in this phrase refers to the area of interest of a particular reporter. A journalist’s beat is the individuals or issues that they regularly cover in their reporting.

Gotcha journalists may not always willingly compile beat sweeteners but many have had to resort to publishing a media culpa. This is a term used to refer to public admission of a mistake by a member of the media, a play on the Latin phrase mea culpa, literally (through) my fault. In recent months two of the most influential newspapers in the United States, The New York Times and The Washington Post, published media culpas for their failure to give serious coverage of the arguments against going to war with Iraq, and their consequent bias towards pro-war perspectives.

In the twenty-first century gotcha journalism has the power to influence its readers more than ever. Through the Internet we have direct and easy access to media coverage of world events, politics and celebrity. Even if we prefer the format of a traditional printed newspaper or magazine, we don’t always have to buy one. Many newspapers and magazines now have what are referred to as print clones, online versions which are replicas of their printed counterparts. This accessibility of news information in various forms means that, whereas in the past people would sit down to a good read of the newspaper, today they tend to get news in snatches throughout the day, usually online or through radio and television. This tendency has recently been coined news-grazing, from the sense of graze as in ‘consume small amounts regularly’. Those who engage in the activity are described as news-grazers.

Here’s hoping that in this and other articles in MED magazine and Word of the Week this year, we’ve provided you with the opportunity to do some lexical news-grazing, and find out more about the topical words and new coinages which reflect twenty-first century life!

For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.