Media

One wrong word can twist meaning and create an impression of bias where in reality none exists

November 02, 2017 11:55 AM
A.S. Panneerselvan

A.S. Panneerselvan

One wrong word can twist meaning and create an impression of bias where none exists

Last week, senior journalist and director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Sanjoy Hazarika, whose book Strangers of the Mist remains one of the finest introductions to the complexities of the politics, insurgencies, conflicts and conflict resolution processes in Northeast India, questioned the use of the term “Assam native” in the promotional caption for the report "Man on vacation thrashed for urinating on street" appeared  in the Metro section of the Delhi edition. He found the use of the term objectionable on three counts: the term was used by colonialists to describe the ancestry of a person; ‘native’ is also often used in a derogatory manner to make fun of or discriminate against outsiders; and why is the State of origin of the victim of any relevance to the report?

It is important for all journalists to keep in mind when they start keying in their reports that one wrong word can twist meaning, create an impression of bias where in reality none exists, and distract from the basic role of informing the public.

The report was a touching one. It was about a young teacher who was allegedly beaten by a mob in south Delhi for urinating next to a garbage dump on the street near his brother’s rented accommodation. It was about the vulnerability of visitors in major metros and their difficulties. Despite its obvious good intentions, the story managed to evoke criticism because of the usage of a term that is loaded with cultural and political significance. Internal inquiry reveals that the term was not used to denote any political or identity stigmatisation but was an inadvertent error in judgment.

Loaded terms

Journalism is an interlocking of multiple attributes. Venn diagrams used in mathematics are a tool to understand how myriad strands are woven into a broadsheet that exemplifies the best of the trade. In Venn diagrams, there is a distinction between the intersection and the union of sets. In intersection, only the common attributes are highlighted, while in the union, all the attributes of participating sets are cumulatively taken. In that sense, journalism is a union of sets of rules that govern reporting, headline writing, editing, and design. It is not an intersection. A slip up in one area has the potential to undermine the whole effort. Some offensive terms still enter the newspaper not because of bias, but due to the normalisation of stereotypes.

Over the last three decades, most journalism organisations have been working on glossaries to deal with loaded terms. These are constantly updated, and acceptable alternative words are listed for each of the contested words. For instance, Reporting Conflict: A Handbook for Media Practitioners, edited by Laxmi Murthy, has a listing from A to Z that unpacks some of the words that have the potential to hurt and humiliate. There are glossaries for gender-sensitive reporting, for covering migration, to avoid hate speech, to cover terrorism, and multiple resources in reporting children. These efforts are not futile exercises in political correctness. They provide the necessary tools to make journalism a site of empathy, inclusiveness and respect for the dignity of fellow human beings.

In the introduction to “Use with care”, a reporter’s glossary of loaded language in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, which was published by the International Press Institute (IPI), the authors ask some pertinent questions which I believe every reporter and copy editor should imbibe: “Can journalists rise above their roots and remain true to their journalistic mission, even when those interests conflict? Can they avoid the use of loaded words that serve a narrative instead of reflecting reality?”

Exercising caution

The IPI glossary explains how words are more than what they seem and how they may possess more than one meaning or have a hidden connotation which may change over time and depend on circumstances. It urges journalists to realise that the knowledge of a language’s grammar and syntax will not suffice when trying to pinpoint the meaning of a word.

The guiding principle for the IPI authors is the old proverb: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” They concede that words can only mediate reality, not define it. It is important for all journalists to keep in mind when they start keying in their reports that one wrong word can twist meaning, create an impression of bias where in reality none exists, and distract from the basic role of informing the public.

 

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