Words matter

Back in my university days, for my major in journalism, I had to take a class about ethics in journalism. And it changed my life. My “aha” moment was when the professor handed out two different news articles about the same event – a funeral. Both articles were factually accurate. In our class discussion, we noted that one story seemed rather cut-and-dry: the hearse was “gray”, the women “wore black” and they “cried openly”, etc. After reading the other article, the class said their impression was that the family of the deceased was very well off and very high class – the hearse was “silver”, the women wore “black haute couture” and they “wept”, etc. There were lots more examples we came up with that I cannot remember now, but I do remember that I started paying a lot more attention to words that were used in the media to describe events. And I still do.

I use the following as an example not to invite debate about the ethics of abortion or access to abortion, but, rather, for you to think about words, to think about those debates and the words different people use when talking about the same things. One side talks about reproductive health, personal choice, reproductive choice, health clinics, pregnancy termination, freedom from government interference and abortion access. The other side brands itself as pro-life and uses words like murder and killing and baby parts and abortion industry. You can know which side a politician is on based on which words that person uses. Both sides regularly petition the media to use particular phrasing when talking about any news related to abortion services.

Another example: following mass shootings and murders by different young white men at a Colorado movie theater in July 2012, a Connecticut elementary school in December 2012, a Charleston, South Carolina church in June 2015, and an Oregon community college in October 2015, among many others, the shooters were referred to by police and the media as loners and mentally-ill, their relationships with women were often mentioned, and the words terrorism or radicalized were rarely, or never, used by journalists or politicians in association with the events once the shooters were identified. By contrast, mental illness, relationships with women and similar references was rarely, if ever, discussed by those same people regarding mass shootings, murders and bombings in the USA by young Muslim men in Little Rock in 2009, in Boston in April 2013, in Garland, Texas in 2015, and in Chatanooga in July 2015, among many others (details are still emerging regarding the shooting in San Bernadino this week, so I’ll leave that off this list).

Another example: the estate tax versus the death tax. In the USA, when someone dies, the money and goods that they had that is passed along to heirs, usually children, is taxed by the federal government. When this tax is described as an estate tax, polls show that around 75% of voters supported it. But when the exact same proposed policy is described as a death tax, only around 15% of voters supported it.

Sometimes, our choice of words to describe something is unconscious, a matter of our education or background. Other times, the choices are quite deliberate and meant to add subtext to our message, to sway the reader or listener in a particular direction. As I said on Facebook in response to someone who implied she doesn’t think word choice matters when describing groups, people or events:

If there is anything I’ve learned in my almost 50 years – WORDS MATTER. The words we use influence, inspire, change minds, create understanding or misunderstanding, fuel flames or put them out. Using a double standard to talk about people that murder others brands one “just really sad”, and the other “terrorism.” It demonizes entire groups while letting off other groups that are the same. It’s hypocrisy.

Here is a wonderful web site from a student project at the University of Michigan on the power of word choice in news articles (it includes rather wonderful lesson plans you can use in your own trainings!). It hasn’t been updated in a long while, but the examples it uses – many from the second Iraqi war with the USA – are excellent for showing the power of word choices to influence opinion – and even create misunderstanding. Also see this lesson plan for students in grade 9 – 12 regarding word choice and bias from Media Smarts, “Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy,” for more examples of how word choices can influence our opinions.

Words matter. Choose carefully.

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