While there is a healthy debate in the media over the use of the NFL team name Redskins and a number of media outlets have stopped using it, contending the term is derogatory and offensive to American Indians, there is a suggestion that perhaps the media is not equally attentive to other terms that create bias.
At a recent conference of the Trotter Group, a national organization of African-American newspaper columnists, Brian D. Smedley, vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said terminology has made it difficult to get Americans focused on health care reform and the realities of the Affordable Care Act.
Specifically, “the use of the term ‘Obamacare’,” Smedley said.
Media have “accepted this term as if it were a legitimate term,” when surveys have shown a negative public reaction to it, in contrast to the response to “Affordable Care Act,” veteran journalist Richard Prince reported in his Journal-isms column.
So while journalists report that Americans view the term negatively, that they seem to think it is something different and sinister, unlike the Affordable Care Act, news accounts still use the more offensive term, likely fueling the bias.
Journalism for years used to be guided by its own take on the physicians’ caveat to “First, do no harm.” In the digital age where buzzwords and SEO links drive traffic to websites, some terms fit easily into headlines on mobile apps and provide instantly recognizable shorthand for readers, listeners and viewers. The consideration of whether the language has an injurious impact on the audience has gotten lost.
When I teach the basic reporting course, I tell students there are certain rules by which journalists must abide, but I also point out that they will see the rules routinely violated and that the challenge for them is to act ethically even in the face of being rewarded for behaving otherwise.
As a rule journalists do not call someone a murderer who has not been convicted of the charge of murder. In fact, the incident is called a homicide and the victim “killed” or “slain” unless and until it is officially determined to be a murder.
How many times, though, have you watched television news to hear an anchor report on a “gruesome murder”?
Reporters are to resist inserting their opinions into a story, but often they describe an incident as “miraculous” or “tragic” or “devastating” before they even quote the first victim or witness. After you describe a situation, it will be obvious to the audience whether it is any of the above. And if it is obvious, you don’t need characterize it.
But it goes deeper. Reporters often get caught up using the argot of those they cover. So, abortion opponents are described as “pro-life,” even as some support the bombing of clinics that provide abortions, among other services, resulting in death and injury.
Those who support the right to choose whether to have an abortion are called “pro-abortion,” as if they are encouraging women to terminate their pregnancies.
It is critical that we avoid writing first and asking questions later. Deadlines are important, but clarity and balanced, unbiased information is more so.
To a degree, we all understand what is intended in language, but the lack of precision allows people to twist words into what they want them to mean. It is the responsibility of journalists to see it and avoid carrying water for the team.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”