How we talk about social issues shapes how we think about them. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the government invented a language – Newspeak – which had censorship embedded into its construction. Using Newspeak, people found it difficult to express or even think ideas that disagreed with the official party line. There was no word for “rebellion.”
The practice of doublespeak – changing words to alter their emotional impact – is well-established in the United States media and public relations world today. The word “doublespeak” is partly based on Orwell’s ideas.
The graphic below, from the Facebook page “Beware of Images,” gives many examples of words that news reporters and public relations specialists alter to change public perceptions of controversies. This list looks as if it comes from a left-wing perspective; a more conservative graphic designer might point out a different set of words.
Is it wrong to alter public perception of a situation deliberately by choosing words that have less impact? Not necessarily. Writers often adjust the presentation of their work. There are some situations in which providing the brutal truth is neither necessary nor compassionate.
But, at the same time, if a news source is going to present itself as truthful or balanced, softening language and censoring images erases stronger viewpoints from the discussion. This could result in a situation in which reporters are censored by vested interests and are no longer able to tell the stories of other groups. And that could lead people who disagree with mainstream news sources to turn to other websites.
Because of the importance of balance, I think news reporters should give more space to the perspectives of underrepresented groups than they do today. Because the existing system favors “experts,” politicians, and mainstream thinkers, it excludes the points of view of people who are not insiders.
The Op-Ed Project is training women to write editorials because women’s voices are underrepresented on those pages. Similarly, women writers are underrepresented in many major magazines. Once again, it’s a matter of balance; I haven’t seen anyone suggesting that women should take over the Atlantic Monthly and write all of its articles.
Without the views of women, cultural minorities and other disenfranchised groups, the news media will remain a pale and weak shadow of what it could become. Doublespeak isn’t the main problem; it’s lack of balance. Differing views are being erased from our collectively written story.