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News media word choices halt discussion

News media word choices halt discussion
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The nation’s news consumers have little confidence in the journalism industry’s ability to fuel the conversation of democracy. A key weakness in the content of news flow today is journalists’ general inability to sort through the rhetorical fogs that permeate the public sphere. In particular, journalists have allowed several key terms to be used as rhetorical clubs in the nation’s dialogue. Instead of careful wordsmithing, reporters allow magic words to inflate and distort news stories that demand more nuance and perspective. The rhetorical result is a shallowness that diminishes reasoned discussion of the nation’s challenges.

One term today that is manipulated recklessly in public discourse and in news accounts is “justice.” English philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote in the 19th century that use of the term “justice” is often a “eulogistic covering” for self-absorbed motives of hatred or jealousy. Such contamination, he asserted, allowed public debaters to rhetorically conceal their real motives behind the shield that a motivation for “justice” is supposed to provide. Thus, provocateurs can legitimize any means and any argument as long as “justice” is assigned as an ultimate goal. Activists can stop traffic or vandalize statues and the news media approvingly creates narratives that striving for “justice” is at the foundation of such actions.

The concept of “justice,” however, is highly abstract and needs a full dialectic to determine its precise meaning in such news accounts. The news media refuse (or maybe are incapable) to engage in such linguistic analysis. Suffice it to say, though, that the “justice” being sought by raucous demonstrators is not the same kind of “justice” desired by shop owners who’ve had their property destroyed. It is not the same kind of “justice” that is sought methodically in the formal judicial system. 

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Another term that needs more circumstantial interpretation is “safety.” Government officials can impose any decision by rationalizing it as rooted in “safety.” Decisions to close schools, churches, businesses and sports events are presumably unassailable when done to keep people “safe.” Alternatively, anybody who doesn’t agree with government edicts executed in the name of “safety” are reckless rubes who necessarily want people to be unsafe.

This sort of “rhetoric of hysteria,” as rhetorician Kenneth Burke described the process, takes public discussion beyond the reach of normal linguistic communication. Burke warned that such promotion of fear becomes a “paralogical appeal-that-ends-all-appeals.” Keeping people “safe” from COVID-19, as government-imposed restrictions are designed to do, is one thing. But such decisions ignore the unsafe circumstances that children face when they can’t be in school, such as domestic violence, food insecurity, substance abuse, and psychological harm. The families of small business owners, too, lose a degree of “safety” when their livelihoods are destroyed.

Then there is the term that is presumed to make all Americans stop and salute — “Science,” or even the singular use of “The science,” as though science is so exact and precise that there are to be no alternative interpretations or no possible ill-defined results of science. Decision makers surrender to science, claiming their actions are driven necessarily by the demands of science. Government officials say their hands are tied by having to follow science. Such leaders sound much like the 1970s comedian, Flip Wilson, who ducked responsibility for any antic by claiming, “The devil made me do it.” Of course, these officials believe they can deflect all responsibility for their actions by pointing to “the science.”

Big Ten football was initially cancelled due to “the science,” but now is being reinstated because science miraculously now allows it. Stringent lockdowns were supposedly demanded by science, but there apparently is no science in Sweden, where such lockdowns were avoided. Ultimately, while the scientific process is a helpful tool, its results are not always exact and certainly don’t make decisions.

The use of terms such as “justice” and “science” are trotted out today by activists and advocates as rhetorical sledgehammers. Such terms are pushed in the face of the public and effectively shut down efforts to counter-argue.

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John Stuart Mill once wrote, “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” So it is today as public dialogue disallows dissent with anybody who is on the side of “justice,” “safety,” or “science” — no matter how poorly those notions are defined.

The news media have been snookered into buying these fallacious rhetorical misdirections.

Journalism must reel in opportunists who toss around hot-button terms without proper context or interpretation. Abstract concepts demand context and careful scrutiny. The media must confront these rhetorical shielding terms that short-circuit rational thought and robust debate.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.