Monday, November 06, 2006

Choose Your Words Carefully

As I was driving around today between the hospital and various other places I noticed a number of news articles about the verdict in the Saddam Hussein trial. Their titles got me thinking about the power of words.

One paper titled their article "Dictator gets Death." Another talked about the "deposed Iraqi leader." A story on NPR referred to the "former Iraqi leader." Other news outlets talked about "Saddam Hussein," "Saddam," or "Hussein." The thing that I began pondering was how those different references to the same event and the same person can elicit different reactions from the audience.

"Dictator gets Death" was probably chose for it's use of alliteration (it would have been better for that purpose as "Deposed Dictator gets Death") but it has the potential to make the reader think less of the defendant than a story about the "former leader." The author may have intended to illicit that reaction or may not have intended any special reaction. Using words such as dictator and tyrant, which have subjective definitions and vivid connotations, can sway the audience to a particular side of the debate even when the facts are weak.

I have learned to be aware of the use of manipulative verbiage - even when I agree with the position - in order that I might avoid being swayed by an emotional reaction to the particular words rather than a logical reaction to the facts of a debate. I also try to avoid using terminology which will manipulate an audience when I am discussing an issue. I believe it is counter-productive to be clever with our words unless we are very careful that our cleverness does not interfere with our meaning.

This is not a complaint against any title. It is a reminder to me that there may be a million ways to say what appears to be the same thing but if we dig deeper we can discern that each of those million ways can throw is into a different mindset through which we filter the information we are receiving.


Sheldon said...

Well considered, David. I think if more reporters thought this way the media would be trusted more and maligned less. I've seen waaay too many headlines (and entire articles) where it was obvious the writer had a strong opinion on the subject. Sure, we like to see different angles on a news story, but we don't need someone else to tell us which POV is the right one.

David said...

I have heard the position that it is okay for a reporter to take a position so long as they do not pretend to be neutral when they do. I say it's okay so long as that work goes in the op/ed section.