Throughout my career as a writer I’ve sparred with editors, readers and critics over all sorts of topics but perhaps none quite so passionately as the issue of bias. Specifically, the fights are over whether something I have written or said on-air speaks to my own bias or the bias of the outlet I’m working for, or whether criticism from a particular reader, viewer, advocacy group or editor is indicative of his or her bias. While accusations of “liberal bias” have become a constant in debates over fairness and accuracy in news coverage another argument will soon become more significant: the debate over language bias.
So what is language bias exactly?
Here’s an example: A white person I was interviewing used the N-word—only she didn’t call it the N-word. She said the word itself during her effort to convince me that the term “assisted suicide” is offensive. The same way you can’t say the N-word and claim you’re not a racist, she claimed, you can’t write, “assisted suicide” in an article and claim you’re not biased.
This is, of course, a ridiculous analogy. The reason she made it, however, is because polling shows that more Americans support aid-in-dying measures, when the word “suicide” is not used in the polling question.
Her goal is clear: To get people like me, and the many other reporters who use the term most medical professionals use, to stop using the words that are harmful to her advocacy efforts by any means necessary—including resorting to invoking what is widely considered the most offensive slur in the English language. However, when I informed her that I was African American (it was a phone interview) and that I found the analogy offensive she apologized and asked for the comment to be stricken from the record.
Now, I’m not at all here to allege she is a racist—and that’s one of the reasons I am not printing her name, despite how easy it is to find—but I do believe her behavior is indicative of a growing problem in newsrooms, which is advocacy groups trying to use journalists to do their work for them, emboldened by thousands of anonymous soldiers on social media. They’re going to more aggressive lengths than ever to do so.
It’s not my job to make assisted suicide more palatable to the masses but to explain the issue as accurately as possible. Then, as an editorial columnist, I can articulate why I may see the issue one way, even if my readers see it in another. But increasingly advocacy groups are pressuring journalists and news outlets to adopt their language—or else.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon. In her memoir on her tenure as president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, The War on Choice, Gloria Feldt explained that groups opposing abortion were responsible for the adoption of the term “partial birth abortion.” Although not an actual medical term, it became the de facto term used by many journalists during coverage of the debates regarding the medical procedure known as intact dilation and extraction. It even became the name of one of the few anti-abortion measures passed in the last two decades, “The Partial Birth Abortion Ban of 2003,” and it is widely believed among reproductive rights activists that the name played a role.
After all, who wants to be on the record supporting something called “partial birth abortion”? And that’s exactly what its opponents were banking on.
Coverage of reproductive issues has always been one of the greatest landmines of the language bias wars.
“What happened is, as journalists began to use different terms the audience came to assign different values to the journalist himself. So if you used the term pro-life you were seen as being an advocate of the anti-abortion movement, because you were using language that was favorable to them,” the Poynter Institute’s Vice President and ethics expert Kelly McBride told The Daily Beast. “And in many cases journalists didn’t intend to signal that.”
Journalists “felt like, ‘Look, they yelled at us for calling them anti-abortion’ so they called them pro-life. ‘We just wanted to stop getting yelled at and accused of being biased.’ And it was like, ‘Well, now they don’t think you’re biased, now they think you’re on their side and you’re an advocate for their cause.’”
But conservative groups are not the only ones guilty of playing word games. The Columbia Journalism Review credited immigration advocacy groups with playing a key role in the Associated Press’s decision to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” and called the move a “victory” for such organizations. While the AP denied that outside pressure directly impacted the decision, that is hard to believe—since eradicating the term has been a key messaging priority of immigrant rights organizations.
Similarly, most advocates in support of same-sex marriage insist on using the term “marriage equality” in media. It’s something I have always found odd, when many also compare the legal battles over same-sex marriage to the legal battles over interracial marriage, which has never historically been referred to as “marriage equality.”
During an exchange with a friend regarding my refusal to adopt the term “marriage equality,” he suggested that those words had probably helped advance the cause of same-sex marriage in popular culture. But I reminded him: That’s not supposed to be the priority of newsrooms and those of us in them.
So is there any way to fairly resolve the language bias issue in newsrooms?
“When an advocacy group criticizes your language what I tell journalists to do is to listen to them, hear them out and then consider whether the term they’re using in their stories accurately conveys the meaning they’re trying to convey, and if they honestly are the best words to use, then keep using them,” McBride said. “But if they’re not the best words to use and they don’t accurately convey the precise meaning that you think they convey to the bulk of your audience, most of the time you’re going to end up using more words.”
McBride then gave a salient example: “You’re either in favor of legalized abortion or you are against legalized abortion. Those are longer phrases, but they are more accurate and precise.”
Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, noted that previous efforts to establish a universal governing group that addresses these issues for journalists have not been successful. One of the reasons is that unlike the medical or legal professions that have established protocols in place for adjudicating ethical matters, journalism is an unlicensed profession. So getting every person that identifies as a “journalist” to cooperate with ethical guidelines will be tough. McBride also cited the costs associated with maintaining a universal ethical governing body.
“Whatever choice you make, you’re going to be infuriating somebody,” Kirtley said. “Because they are going to claim you are setting the agenda one way or the other.”
With that in mind, I’m off to write my next column, which will either be about activists who are pro-life, pro-choice, pro-same-sex marriage or against marriage equality, for undocumented citizens but against illegal immigrants and against assisted suicide but for death with dignity… or something like that.