Unpacking loaded language

Security forces vs. police officers vs. insurgents vs. soldiers vs. terrorists vs. fighters vs… How do you refer to people with guns while also remaining objective in your reporting?

That’s the question we grappled with in Thursday’s class discussion. At best, there’s no clear, good answer, and a few definite bad ones. As journalists, our language choices affect our every piece of work and impact all future projects. Intimidating, yes. But language lies at the heart of the craft; indeed, crafts the story. Diction alters the frame of a story. To not use language of the utmost neutrality is to grind against objectivity and color a reader’s content for them. That’s not our job.

Avoiding loaded language in reporting lends itself to remaining impartial and unbiased. Jonathan Baker, head of the BBC College of Journalism, says that BBC does not take other people’s language as its own, adding:

“Our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.”

Easier said than done, especially when reporting on complex topics like religion, minorities and violence. As we’ve discussed in previous classes, our culture and upbringing shape our worldview and individual perceptions of the truth. We bring all of this baggage into our reporting and writing. This is fine, it’s only human. The trick is avoiding letting this inevitable suitcase of life experiences get in the way of objective, honest content that readers deserve.

So what do you call a person with a gun? A person with a gun who has killed others?

For illustration purposes, let’s try terrorist. CJR writer Tanveer Ali reported that, according to the FBI, a “‘universally accepted'” definition of terrorism doesn’t exist. And depending on the situation (Domestic? Abroad?), its meaning always changes. What is certain is that terrorism/ terrorist are extremely loaded words, about as far away from neutrality as you can get. NPR states in its Code of Ethics that

“Politically loaded language not only violates our commitment to be fair, but also gets in the way of telling good stories. It makes readers and listeners stop to consider whether we’re biased in favor of one side or the other.”

In most cases, just don’t use it. And in all cases, think critically about the meanings of your word choices and remember that some words mean different things in different cultures.

As connotations of certain words change all the time, we must remain culturally conscious as well as ever-vigilant of our language choices. For more interesting reads about loaded language in the media, check out these articles by CJR’s Paul McLeary and Judith Matloff.

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