Journalists must have a decent vocabulary to make sure they can communicate effectively to an audience. To assist my students in this regard, kids in my Feature Writing class have been required to smell or feel a mystery substance without being able to see it. They then have to generate 15 words that describe the sensation accurately and clearly.
The point I was trying to make in those lessons was that distinctions in verbiage convey specific images to your audience. There’s a difference between “sticky” and “slimy” or between “cool” and “cold.” In taking a whiff from the mystery bags, students found themselves debating among the terms “scent” and “odor” and “stench.”
Distinctions like this can make the difference between a vivid word picture and a fuzzy mental image, but really can’t do much harm to the readers or the field. A recent court decision in Wisconsin, however, demonstrates how word choices can literally shape opportunities for justice.
Kyle Rittenhouse is on trial for his actions during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. 2020. Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two of them, as part of a collection of citizens who came down to “monitor” the civil unrest that occurred after police officer Rusty Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times as Blake was getting into his SUV. Rittenhouse is currently on trial for these shootings and the judge in the case made a specific requirement as to how participants in the case should refer to certain people involved:
During Rittenhouse’s upcoming trial on homicide charges, prosecutors must refer to the two people he fatally shot — Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber — and one he wounded — Gaige Grosskreutz — as Mr. Rosenbaum, Mr. Huber and Mr. Grosskreutz, or the people who were shot, or as to Rosenbaum and Huber, the decedents.
They may not be referred to as victims.
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger countered by seeking to bar defense lawyers from calling the men “looters, rioters, arsonists or any other pejorative term.”
While looting, rioting and arson occurred in the two nights before the shooting, Binger argued that unless there’s specific proof Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz were engaged in any of those actions, and that Rittenhouse had seen it, the labels are even more “loaded” than what judge ascribes to “victim.”
Schroeder was not swayed.
We have seen this problem before in how certain words can lead readers to have certain emotional reactions. The most famous one is this comparison of people during Hurricane Katrina trying to survive by scrounging for supplies. While the caption on the photo of the Black man shows him “looting,” the caption for the white couple has them “finding” supplies.
In both cases, people were taking items necessary to their survival from places without paying for them (primarily because everything was destroyed or abandoned at that time, and nobody showed up to run the register at the local convenience store). However, the “looting” tag carries with it a criminal vibe while the “finding” tag seems to indicate the people just were walking around and discovered the stuff under a pile of leaves on the sidewalk or something.
Feminist scholars have long noted the incongruity in language as to how men and women are described. A few common pairings include:
- Women are “pushy” while men are “assertive”
- Women are “bossy” while men “take charge”
- Women are “stubborn” while men are “persistent”
We could go on for days, but the point is that language matters in how we tell stories. Here are a couple hints to improve your word selection when it comes to potential biases in language:
WOULD YOU USE THE DESCRIPTOR OF THE SITUATION WAS REVERSED?: One of the key ways to determine fairness in language or description is to turn the tables and see if it still works for you. My favorite example comes from Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four,” in which one of his teammates notes that he wouldn’t mind the papers referring to him as “the black first baseman” if only they would refer to his counterpart as “the white first baseman.”
The same is true of descriptions like “the female mayor” or “the woman CEO” and so forth. Calling attention unnecessarily to an attribute that you wouldn’t flip the other way is clearly an indicator that you might want to rethink that descriptor. I can’t remember seeing headlines about “the white quarterback” or “the male company president” and I bet most of you can’t either. Same thing with references to a “straight wedding” or a “cis gender politician.”
This doesn’t mean all descriptors of any kind like this should be ignored or eliminated. What it does mean is that you should think about why you’re doing what you’re doing and see if it makes sense.
DOES THE TERM HAVE A LOADED MEANING?: I can’t think of any time I’ve heard someone described as “a looter” or “a rioter” and had a positive reaction to that person. Those terms carry with them some negative baggage. Conversely, I’ve seen an array of meanings ascribed to the term “clowning around” that range from bright and happy to racist.
Calling a member of the city council a “bureaucrat” can be technically accurate, as that person is a governmental figure, but it also brings up an image of someone who cares more about laws than people or who obstructs important actions by adhering to the letter of the law.
Calling a new policy a “reform” can be technically correct, as it will reshape the legal landscape in regard to the the way something is done, thus re-forming something. However, the term carries with it a positive meaning that leads people to believe something is a good idea. For example, a plan to cut benefits to working parents who are operating just above the poverty line can be deemed “welfare reform” and seen in a positive light.
The one I just saw that made me think was “unskilled labor.” In a post on this term, someone noted that all labor is skilled. If you took Bill Gates and stuck him with a road construction crew, he would be as lost as can be. If you took Jamie Dimon and put him in charge of a Naperville McDonald’s during lunch rush, he would probably end up with a crowd of really angry people and some severe grease burns. The term “unskilled labor” is meant to diminish the value of what certain people do and thus make it easier to discount them or pay them less.
All sorts of terms have a particular angle on them, such as “pro-life” for people who are against abortion rights, to “anti-death,” to people who opposed capital punishment. The question you need to ask is if your choice of words is providing bias or giving favor to a particular side of a debate.
DOES THAT WORD MEAN WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS: Whenever I’m writing and I’m half guessing at the meaning of a word, I’m mystically transported back to eighth grade and hearing my mother’s voice yelling from another room, “Look it up! You’ve got a dictionary in there!”
We talked about this a bit during one of The Junk Drawer posts, where a reporter talked about this lead and word choice:
MILWAUKEE — In the immediate aftermath of a legendary performance to close out the 2021 NBA Finals and win a championship for the first time in his career, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo declared that he signed his five-year, supermax contract extension prior to the season because “there was a job that had to be finished,” and that staying in Milwaukee meant doing it the “hard way.”
Aside from the 83 other problems we noted, the use of the word “aftermath” is wrong, given that it means “the consequences or aftereffects of a significant unpleasant event.”
I still love the student who finally learned after years of using “penultimate” to describe something that was super-extra ultimate, the word actually meant “second to last.”
The point is to know the meaning of the word before you use it.
That’s an important point I hoped I emphasized in that penultimate paragraph.