Posted by: structureofnews | November 3, 2021

Backwards Ran The Sentences

A very short post, sparked by a single paragraph.

It was in a NYT story about the debate over language on the left (BIPOC/Latinx/ Microagression/AAPI/LGBTQIA+ and more); the story overall was smart and interesting, but this paragraph was particularly insightful.

Saying something like, ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank,’ instead of saying, ‘Banks are less likely to give loans to Black people,’ might feel like it’s just me wording it differently,” Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said. “But ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank’ makes people ask themselves, ‘What’s wrong with Black people? Let’s get them financial literacy programs.’ The other way is saying, ‘What’s wrong with the banks?’”

And Mr. Robinson is absolutely right: Words matter, and how we use them matter. Beyond news judgment – itself a whole area we can and should explore – and the framing of stories (ditto), even simple, declarative, uncontroversial factual statements can affect how readers look at a subject.

You might be thinking: Perhaps he’s overstating the importance of this. And it’s true that probably a single use of a phrase or a framing doesn’t have much impact. But cumulatively, small things do build and can change our perceptions of the world. We all have biases, based on how we see categories of things and how experience and culture of them filter into our brains. (This all from The End of Bias, a book I’m deep into now and plan to write about soon.) And words in stories are part of that experience and culture.

This won’t be easy to address. Undoing decades of writing habits is hard.

It would be easier if it wasn’t words. Certainly the graphics and data visualization community has always been sensitive to how information is designed – and writing is a form of information design – and that’s perhaps because that visual grammar is in many ways still evolving; and as a result, everything is up for discovery and debate. Writing, on the other hand, is a much older technology, and so much of it is embedded in us that we often don’t think as much as we should about how the words go on the page (or screen), and certainly not when we’re on deadline. I confess I haven’t thought about what I write the way Mr. Robinson has, and that’s my bad.

So how can we address this? I’m not sure, other than more scrutiny and awareness. But I’m sure that’s not enough.


Responses

  1. Gina,

    Again, a thoughtful piece. How we help/make people more aware has been an intrinsic part of my teaching life. Awareness for the moment and its imprint doesn’t mean you won’t drift away from intentions.

    One of my core vales has been….”The teaching is in the learning”……If you did’t learn it, then I didn’t teach it. It’s not enough to fall back on, “Well, I taught him, I showed him, he just didn’t get it”

    Good work,

    Sue

    >

    • Thanks, Sue. All of this belongs in a media literacy course too, doesn’t it?

  2. Front & Center discussion, GIna. Naming is indeed power, and associated framing; even the ordering of comparisons affects perceptions. E.G., describing Joe Manchin as a “centrist” or “moderate” begs the question of in what context? Our narrative is so broken that many media people don’t even realize they are making choices in their language!


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