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Pam Frampton: Watch your language


“Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.” —  American author and activist Rita Mae Brown   In conveying information to readers, journalists can wield a great deal of influence. And their choice of words can carry a lot of weight. Whether that weight is ballast or baggage depends on whether they’ve chosen wisely.

This week, some reporters may have unintentionally fallen into a common trap in choosing to describe the people protesting the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project as “land protectors.”

I’m trying to choose my words carefully here, as well. I don’t mean “trap” in the sense that reporters were conned into using the term to forward someone else’s agenda. I mean “trap” in the sense of a device you can get snagged in that prevents your moving forward. Or, in this case, prevents the story from moving forward unencumbered.

“Land protectors” has a positive connotation — these are people who genuinely care about the environment, who worry about land and water being contaminated through industrial activity, and the ramifications to human health. Given the concerns about the potential for harmful levels of methylmercury to accumulate with the flooding of the reservoir at Muskrat Falls, I’d say it’s an apt description for the people who are protesting.

But I’m a columnist, not a reporter, and columnists routinely use loaded terms in order to convey a message and attempt to persuade.

Reporters should avoid such language, laden as it is with inherent subjectivity.

And to be fair, not all local media are using the term. Some acknowledged that protesters were identifying themselves as “land protectors,” and then went on to refer to them in more neutral terms, as “protesters” or “demonstrators.”

I’m willing to bet that many reporters who used the term “land protectors” did so in order to be respectful of how the people were identifying themselves. And that’s very nice. But it doesn’t always come across as objective; in fact, it can sound like the reporter is embedded with the group whose actions it is covering. Would we refer to Nalcor as “land destroyers”?

The same problem arises whenever the media covers abortion issues. We’ve all seen references to pro-life groups; is the other crowd, then, pro-death? Of course not. That’s why they call themselves pro-choice, which then, of course, implies that people who oppose abortion are anti-choice. Words are loaded with implication.

The same phenomenon arises during strikes when employees have been locked out by their employer. Their union would urge the company not to resort to the use of “scabs,” while the employer would argue that it would harm the sustainability of the business if it did not bring in “replacement workers.”

Just as a reporter tweeting the gruesome details of a murder trial sends an unfortunate message if his Twitter profile photo has him grinning like a Cheshire cat, the reporter who repeats loaded labels without thinking about the message they convey runs the risk of blunting their objectivity.

The blog Daily Writing Tips describes a memorable example which played out during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the United States in the 1980s.

Reagan regularly referred to the guerrillas fighting against the Sandinista government as “freedom fighters.”

“Some people observed at the time that the actions of some of these guerrillas, who were being supported by the U.S. government, merited instead the term terrorists,” Mark Nichol writes in a 2012 blog post, “and that the Reagan administration was cynically using a term meant to disingenuously associate the counterrevolutionaries … with the patriots of the Revolutionary War.”

“Freedom fighters,” Nichol observes, was a term heavily mired in “propagandistic taint.”

While I don’t think the recent use of the term “land protectors” in the local media has had any serious ramifications — it’s a far cry from the blatantly charged “freedom fighter” phrase — it’s worth keeping in mind that loaded words can call into question the credibility of the people using them.

And the last thing any journalist wants is to fuel those who are perpetually coiled and ready to yell “Media bias!”

Pam Frampton is an editor and columnist at The Telegram. Email  pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

 

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