At its core, journalism is about delivering information to a reader in a way that is immediately digestible and easy to understand. This might involve reducing a complex data set into a comprehensible series of findings or pulling together the disparate strands of a collection of interviews into a single narrative. This isn’t to say that journalism is dumbed down writing but rather that it strives to connect, through its stories, to as many readers as possible.
Given that readers vary not only in age groups but also in reading levels, it isn’t uncommon to hear of editors advising greener journalists to reduce the complexity of their articles so that a broader audience of readers can be reached. And this is also the case at university level, where journalism teachers often invoke the adage ‘how would you tell this story to your [insert disconnected relative]?’ in an effort to remind students and writers to tell the story in the simplest way possible.
In a country as diverse as New Zealand, simplicity is particularly important when it comes to large-scale publications that aim to reach readers of different backgrounds (not all native English speakers) and varying education levels.
So, are Kiwi publications obeying this rule of simplicity and is it being reflected in the articles published on mainstream media on a daily basis?
While not conclusive by any means, one way in which this could be tested is by running Kiwi publications through reading level calculators that give a piece of writing a readability score.
One of the most popular of these is the Flesch-Kincaid index, which calculates the reading level of an article or a publication by analysing the syllables, sentence length and verbosity of a piece of writing.
The Flesch-Kincaid index can be used to calculate two things: 1) the reading ease and 2) the grade level. The first test is based on a score that goes from zero to 120, with the higher end equating to a higher readability level. So, as pointed out on Wikipedia, the simple sentence ‘the cat sat on the mat’ scores roughly 116.1 on this scale.
The grade level, on the other hand, gives an indication of the number of years of formal education a reader requires in order to easily comprehend a piece of writing. Thus, the more complex a piece of writing, the higher the grade level will be.
Alongside the Flesch-Kincaid index, there are also a range of other reading ease tests such as the Gunning-Fog Score, the Coleman-Liau Index and the Smog Index. And while we could have used any of these to compare the reading levels of Kiwi publications, we sided with popularity and opted for the Flesch-Kincaid index.
Contently writer Shane Snow recently ran works of literature through the Flesch-Kincaid system and he found that Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea scored particularly high in terms of readability. When we ran Hemingway’s words through the system, this proved to be true, with the book scoring 92.9 in terms of reading ease and a grade level of 3.9.
Given how well this respected book rates in terms of readability, we included it in the rundown for comparative purposes.
On the other side of the readability spectrum, we have the GCSB Bill, which, rather unsurprisingly, scored a dismal 35.8 in terms of reading ease and 9.5 in terms of grade level.
All the other publications put through the readability calculator scored within this bracket, with Stuff coming out as the publication that’s easiest to read both in terms of the reading ease and grade level scores.
Although there were some discrepancies between the reading ease and the grade level score, StopPress, The Civilian and The Listener all leaned toward the more challenging side, while Idealog, 3News and The New Zealand Herald placed around mid table.
The misconception that business writing tends to be inaccessible was countered by the National Business Review, which scored well according to both scales. Less of a surprise was the fact that Woman's Day and Whale Oil were both also very readable.
The GSBC bill and the New Zealand government sites were categorised as the most difficult to read (in terms of reading ease), which is particularly disconcerting given that these two publications are supposed to inform as much of the public as possible—something which cannot be done through the use of archaic language.
According to Nielsen statistics, 1.3 million Kiwis have tertiary level education, which in turn means that government publications intended for the public should—at least in theory—not be written in language that demands a high level of language proficiency of everyone.
Every year, The Plain English Awards celebrate organisations that have embraced simpler language use in their official documents. And while government bodies such as Inland Revenue, the Ministry of Social Development and the Commerce Commission were among the finalists in the 2014 edition, these are still an exception to the norm of esoteric writing that pervades government writing.
In the US, the state of Pennsylvania has incorporated a rule that vehicle insurance policies should be written at a level no higher than that which can be read at ninth grade level—and this approach has since been adopted by other states as a consumer-protection policy. Is it not perhaps time for a similar approach to be applied to the legislation published by the New Zealand government?
This is not to say that the imperfect—some would argue flawed—Flesch-Kincaid should be adopted as the gauge of what is acceptable for publication on a government level. But there is certainly an argument to be made for standardising the use of language on government websites and other related publications to ensure that they are as accessible to as much of the public as possible.