Journalists, especially features and sports writers, love hyperbole and use of superlatives mainly because they add “colour”, life and action to the stories. Sometimes, however, superlatives find themselves in news stories where often times they leave a sour taste because they have not been fact-checked.
Superlatives are words or adjectives that “describe the extreme quality of one thing in a group of things”. Thus superlatives will carry words like most, best, tallest, fastest, etc, and are only used when comparing three things or more, not two or less! Hyperbole on the other hand are “exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally”.
We often see a lot of superlatives in the Ugandan media when new infrastructure projects are unveiled or launched. Thus when the Northern Bypass was first unveiled a decade or so ago, a local newspaper reported that the Kireka-Bweyogerere flyover where the bypass connects to Jinja Road would be the first flyover in East Africa! Of course that was not true!
When the new Source of the Nile Bridge was opened last year, there was an avalanche in the use of superlatives in the stories. One media platform reported that “… the new bridge will be the longest bridge across a river in East Africa, standing at 8 metres high and 525 metres long”. Another reported that “the 525m long cable-stayed bridge is the second of its kind in East Africa after Tanzania’s 680m-long Kigamboni Bridge.”
Yet another reported that “…the Source of Nile Bridge is the fifth longest cable-stayed bridge behind Egypt’s Suez Canal Bridge (3,900m), Lekki Ikoyi Bridge in Nigeria (1,360m), Mohammed VI Bridge in Morocco (950m) and Tanzania’s Kigamboni.” Another wrote: “…new Nile bridge will be the longest single plane cable configuration bridge on the entire African continent”.
Many times readers get bombarded and confused by these superlatives because while they may all be right – one way or the other, the context is often left out which renders the information incomplete and sometimes wrong. Thus if it’s the longest bridge over a river, which is the longest over a swamp, lake or ocean? Which is the second, third and fourth longest over a river?
As the country prepares to receive the new Bombardier CRJ900 aircrafts next week to kick-start the national carrier, Uganda Airlines, there will be another season of superlatives in the media – right, wrong or half true. Already some online stories have claimed Uganda Airlines’ two aircrafts will be the “most modern” in the region without qualifying the superlative! You will read words like “state-of-the-art”, etc.
How can journalists avoid getting caught in this superlative bonanza that could leave audiences [and journalists themselves] confused and carrying inaccurate information? Two lessons are instructive here. The first was passed onto me by Canadian broadcast journalist Murray Oliver in my early years as a sub-editor.
It was simple; “If you can’t count, don’t say most; say many!” In short, if you cannot break it down in real numbers, do not use superlatives. For example, write “many youth support Bobi Wine, not most youth support Bobi Wine” unless you have carried out a census or scientific survey!
The other sits in veteran American editor Harold Evans’ book; Do I Make Myself Clear? A Practical Guide to Writing Well in Modern Age. He says: “And beware of superlatives. Rinse them through a sieve for accuracy. The biggest, tallest, fastest, richest so often turns out to be the second biggest, second tallest, second fastest, and nowhere near the richest.”
Howard Kato sent me the following note: “In your quest for comments and compliments, please begin by advising your team to always read and respond to public inquiries. They never respond to any. I would like to share my thoughts either to get answers or trigger a debate on the health and education sectors. Who do I send my comments to? Do I have to attach my photo? Do I pay for that or do you pay me? Secondly, do you help improve on grammar and phrases before publication.”
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