It’s Actually Perfectly Clear

I am not a fan of journalists who use the phrase “it was not immediately clear,” something I find in news stories nearly every day.

Here’s an example from an account of a menacing speech by Qaddafi:

“These people (the Libyans) are able to one day take this battle … to Europe, to target your homes, offices, families, which would become legitimate military targets, like you have targeted our homes,” [Qaddafi] said…

It was not immediately clear whether Qaddafi could make good on such threats.

“It was not immediately clear” conveys the feeling that the reporter took a reasonable amount of time sifting sources for facts a person might ordinarily expect to find, then reluctantly gave up. In practice, this phrase is nearly always an announcement that the writer is about to spin a story based on no greater authority than his or her own opinion.

In the Qaddafi story the writer uses the phrase in a scoffing way, to indicate he/she does not consider the threats credible. Much easier scoff than interview a general, terrorism expert or diplomat about them.

At other times this is literally a question-begging phrase, as in a recent story about the Commissioner of Baseball:

It was not immediately clear whether Selig would publicly explain his decision.

Here the reporter plainly wanted to know more about the agenda behind one of Selig’s decisions. Nothing wrong with that, it’s the kind of thing a reporter should be digging for. So why didn’t he ask? Had the reporter questioned the best available source of information – Selig — this story would have read — “When asked if he would publicly explain his decision –” followed by Selig’s answer or refusal to comment.

Maybe in this case “it was not immediately clear” was code for “Hey, my editor is posting this story on our website in four minutes, no time to call for a comment!”

Whether “it was not immediately clear” is a wedge making room in a story for the reporter’s personal opinion, or a worthless IOU for questions that ought to have been asked of a real source, it’s a terribly abused phrase.