Students of journalism are taught that the exclamation mark (aka exclamation point) - ! - is by and large an unwelcome guest in straight news reportage. The logic behind this is simple - if a news item is important, the words themselves will speak volumes without the help of a punctuation mark to underline its gravity.

The Arabic-language press, however, embraces this symbol with open arms. Exclamation marks have become something of an epidemic in the Arab media community, as the emotionally-charged character frequently adorns headlines in the Arabic press, whether in local papers in the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Qatar, or even in respectable publications such as the London-based Al-Hayyat and A-Sharq Al-Awsat.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes the exclamation mark as one used "to indicate forceful utterance or strong feeling."

The Arab press, often accused of confusing opinion with straight news reportage, incorporates this character into many of its headlines, allowing the emotions of the writer or the editor to seep through.

Dr. Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in Florida, explained that the exclamation point does not appear often in mainstream journalism since it tends to signify an extreme emotion or expression. Though he pointed out it is a “perfectly good punctuation mark,” he added that reporters are unlikely to use it a lot in straight reporting except to describe the speech or language of others.

Paul Anderson, a teacher of journalism in the Department of Journalism at London’s City University stressed that regarding exclamation marks, students are generally advised to "avoid screamers."

But Arab journalists and editors seem to have taken a liking to this character.

The reason exclamation marks are so prevalent in the Arabic press is because amateur journalists wish to show their feelings rather than the facts, said Aref Hijjawi, a lecturer in media at Ramallah's Birzeit University in the West Bank. “They don’t think so highly of the reader,” he said, “so an exclamation tells [the reader] to look between the lines.”

Hijjawi has become increasingly frustrated with his students using this form of punctuation. He repeatedly stresses they should avoid it, but apparently to no avail. "Now I am noticing it more and more," he said, noting that question marks have also become a headache. “Instead of one they always use two, sometimes three,” he said.

"We advise students to avoid any question mark or exclamation mark," said Dr. Farid Abu Dhair, a lecturer in journalism at Nablus's A-Najah University, "especially in news.” Abu Dhair said the excessive use of exclamation marks in the Arab press is a sign of poor journalism. "It indicates a weakness in the personality of the journalist," he said. “It shows that the journalist is hesitant to go deep into the news item and collect more information that could answer the question ‘why?’ They just try to answer 'what’ and ‘how’ and that means that journalists are cowards.”

Abu Dhair maintains that journalists in the Arab world, and in particular in the Palestinian Authority, use exclamation marks because they are not permitted to scratch beneath the surface of a news item. "The journalist here is not free to go further than just gathering some superficial information and news,” he said, explaining that strict censorship in the Arab world, alongside governmental and editorial pressure, weigh down heavily on the Arab press.

"I think that many people involved in journalistic writing in the Arab world don’t seem to have the intellectual background or educational background to really appreciate the meaning of punctuation and its usage," said Maher Othman, a news editor at the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Hayyat. "It’s as simple as that."

Al-Hayyat is considered a highly reliable publication read by Arabs worldwide. Since its headquarters are in London, the paper is thought to be less restricted than newspapers published in Arab countries.

Othman said that as a rule, Al-Hayyat editors discourage the use of exclamation marks in news reports because they would rather the punctuation be a mental process exercised by the reader. "But occasionally one cannot avoid using an exclamation mark," he said, especially where a preceding quotation seems "outside the bounds of reason."

As an example, Othman mentioned a statement made recently by Israeli Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who said that the tsunami in Southeast Asia was a punishment because so many people are supporting Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza. “I think two exclamation marks are necessary after such a statement, not just one," Othman said.

Speaking of the Arab world, Othman said the flaw in the system is that journalists are ignorant about usage of punctuation. He believes journalism schools do not give the appropriate training on the matter.

However, Abu Dhair believes the problem is not simply a technical issue, but rather stems from maladies in the Arab society. With a soaring rate of unemployment in the Palestinian Authority, journalists fear losing their jobs. “We teach our students to be strong and to be confident," he said, "but at the same time principles and ethics is not enough, if it doesn’t provide them with security in life." A journalist’s top priority is to remain in the job market, he said, and they are often subjected to pressure from the editors or the government.

Many editors in the Arab press will put up with exclamation marks, as they are also weak and susceptible to pressure, Abu Dhair explained. "If you don’t go with the stream it will take you out of journalism and you will not find another job," he said, so most Arab journalists will simply bend to the system.

By Rachelle Kliger on Monday, March 14, 2005