Language in Journalism


Language can be used for a myriad of purposes. Whether you wish to try and evoke a particular emotion from a reader/listener, persuade someone of your point of view, or just want to convey information, the language you use can be powerful. This can be done consciously or through habit, but how someone will react to what you say may well depend on the language you use. With this in mind, I turn to the media: how do they use language?

In writing, even informative writing, there is no one strict regiment everyone should follow. Obviously, there would the basic notions of factuality, common decency (e.g. don’t just blatantly be offensive), not misleading your audience, etc. but most people will try and have their own unique style of writing. Personal biases, differences in opinion, breadth of knowledge and experience, and (to a varying extent) wider society are all influences on how someone will view, and therefore write, on a certain topic.

For example, while I rarely put any real planning into the pieces I write (I usually come up with an idea or find inspiration from elsewhere, like a book or a recent news article, and just blurt stuff onto the page), even without the website name’s meaning, it is pretty clear what many of my ideas and views are based on how I approach certain issues and how I write about them. To keep it on topic, I tend to be rather critical of the media. Not just fake news, blatant propaganda like the Murdoch Press, or those that make a living off of spouting nonsense online (more on that in another piece). I, quite often, find myself detesting ‘mainstream’ sources, even ‘left-leaning’ ones like the Guardian.

That’s not to say I dislike mainstream outlets like the Guardian, the ABC, or even Fairfax for that matter, but just that I, at various times and for various reasons, disagree with certain things. In the pieces I write, I often use ‘mainstream media’ as an almost derogatory phrase – a phrase common across the political spectrum, also frequently used by some unsavoury types to discredit the outlets entirely. It all comes down to the context in which they appear.

When a ‘right-wing’ outlet uses the term mainstream media, it almost certainly is trying to convey the idea that ‘mainstream’ equates to inherently bad or ‘left’ – you think against the grain, therefore you see through the façade and must be ‘smarter’ than those who follow mainstream sources. Sources that are mainstream, from commercial media to papers like the NYT, tend to use it as a scale of normalcy. As opposed to all of these spurious or ‘dangerous’ alternative sources, mainstream takes on the definition of trustworthy.

When I, and others on the ‘left’ side of the alternative spectrum, use the word mainstream, it doesn’t go as far as to discredit it, but instead holds it up to the light to acknowledge its flaws and limitations. I will decry Nine’s takeover of Fairfax and what that means for media concentration in Australia, and the Sydney Morning Herald’s advertising for the LNP in the NSW election, but I won’t go as far as to say it’s unreadable. Or with the Guardian, I can point out (and have done so) their questionable campaign against Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, but overall, they’re a pretty solid mainstream paper. Valid criticisms of mainstream media hold it accountable when they begin to show their true, usually corporate, colours.

As if to prove that latter point, here’s some praise for the Guardian. When discussing certain topics as time goes on, they consciously and actively find new ways to more accurately present their views and reporting. Two examples from the last few months were how they spoke about climate change and abortion.

“Instead of “climate change” the preferred terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favoured over “global warming”, although the original terms are not banned.”

“Editors and reporters are encouraged to use the term “six-week abortion ban” over “fetal heartbeat bill”, unless they are quoting someone.”

The above abortion bit is an addition to some rules they already had in place:

“The Guardian style guide already encourages editors to use “anti-abortion” over “pro-life” for clarity, and “pro-choice” over “pro-abortion”, since not everyone who supports a woman’s right to reproductive choice supports abortion at a personal level.”

The terms used or replaced are not necessarily right or wrong, but simply reflect the understanding and ideals of the paper. In the case of the climate change terms, whether you think the use of ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ is merely alarmism or a very real representation of the environmental concerns we are facing, the language is obviously trying to convey a powerful message of urgency. Regarding abortion, the terms they choose to use reflects their support of women’s right to autonomy over their own body. In opposition to those stances, other outlets might maintain phrases like “pro-life”, or refer to climate change as a “climate hoax”.

The aim of all of this is to convey meaning, within the context of a particular outlet’s views, and to persuade readers, consciously or not, to their ‘side’. When reading an article or text of any kind, it doesn’t do to simply read it – you must do so with an understanding of the context behind it. For instance, take the word migrant in an article and ask yourself this: is the writer referring to all migrants in a general way, or a specific subset of them based on religious or racial prejudices?

There are countless examples of how language can be used, and in the media landscape today many of them have various definitions. Whether you agree with an article’s premise or not, it is a good habit to pick up on the author’s use of language, if only just to gain a better understanding of their intent.


Liked this? Read Accusations of Fake News: The Hostile Media Phenomenon in the Modern Media Landscape

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