Friday, May 12, 2006

Words Matter, Some More Than Others

CJR has a good piece on the White House's effort to fight stories it doesn't like by issuing "set the record straight" press releases. The problem, CJR says, is that the releases themselves play loose with the facts.

It seems that now, perhaps more than ever, we need to guard against sloppy and loose language because there's a huge echo chamber on the blogs on on cable networks who play word games, never quite answering questions, armed with their talking points and all trying to persuade readers or viewers through their highly selective choice of language. By no means is this seemingly sloppy choice of language truly an accident. And the unbelievably careless way words are thrown around by many cable newscasters is enough to make anyone who thinks about language despair.

While we're at it, we're continuing to see poor language choices or carelessness creep into normal, day to day coverage. For example, here's part of a newspaper sentence about the domestic spying program revealed a few months ago:
"... challenge the warrantless surveillance program against al-Qaida revealed in December." Designed to, maybe. But who knows? The question hanging over this program since the revelation has been, why no FISA court approval? And if we know someone is a suspect, why no warrant, no other legal crackdown? In other words, how did they become suspects and what is the government doing about them?

What's the problem? Well, who says it was a program "against al-Qaida"? Yes, the government said that only terror suspects were being tracked through this program. But others vehemently disagree, and, given the USA Today revelations this week, it would seem that the tracking involved millions of people, most of whom are not likely to be al-Qaida members. But the choice of wording affects the perception of readers, many of whom aren't paying a lot of attention. Copy editors, beware.

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