Keeping up: Journalism word games, slogans, euphemisms and misdirections

Journalists’ need to nurture professional skepticism should apply to the latest partisan lingo.

Examples from showbiz and advertising are legion. Are drivers of cars other than Subarus unloving? If a TV drama announces that the events and characters are totally fictional, the viewer automatically thinks “this story must be about real events and characters. Otherwise why the disclaimer?”  

Public discourse on politics, morals and religion is full of such word games, slogans, euphemisms and carefully calculated misdirections. 

In politics, during the Great Depression conservatives coined a classic still with us, the “right to work law,” which actually means the “right to refuse union membership or dues-paying,” and in reality “the right to have a weak union.” Ask your Guild rep. The Jan. 17 New York Times Magazine ran down the ways different eras have proudly embraced or shunned “progressive” and “liberal.”  “Left-leaning” becomes cautious journalistic usage when “liberal” is a slur. Has “socialist” suddenly become benign now that 43 percent of Iowa Democrats accept that label? 

In other up-to-the-minute canons, oppressive-sounding “gun control” is now “gun safety.” Insurgent Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio is magically an “establishment” candidate. In current campaign speak, “amnesty” means whatever immigration policy the other guy wants -- or used to want.  Newswriters are now expected to replace “illegal” immigrant with “undocumented.” 

Turning to moral and sexual conflicts, the Stylebook from The Religion Guy’s former Associated Press colleagues has this stumble (unless it’s been corrected in the latest edition):  “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.”

My take: "Anti" sounds negative while “rights” is positive for Americans. Better for journalists to use parallel terms that leaders on the two sides accept as their labels, “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice,” admitting that the latter skirts what action is being chosen. Meanwhile, conservatives borrow that helpful “choice” slogan when it comes to schools.

“Gay” or “same-sex marriage” has lately become “marriage equality,” which sounds better. Some gays now say “homosexual” should be shelved as offensive. Activists have expanded from LGBT to LGBTQQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, allies) or perhaps A for asexual. This lettering discriminates against the “pansexual” and “polyamorous.” Media often brand cultural or religious conservatives on the marriage issue as odiously “anti-gay,” which suggests “anti-gayS” as though they’re hostile toward people instead of policies -- which takes sides because that’s how gays feel about things.

It’s perilous not to keep up with the times on such matters. A December New York City Commission on Human Rights edict requires that employers, landlords and service providers be fined up to $250,000 if they deliberately address individuals with the wrong pronoun, the pronoun they have embraced. The idea here is to refer only to transgender persons’ psychological identity as opposed to their genetic makeup and birth anatomy. Apparently journalists remain exempt.

In religious labeling, “ultra” is journalistic code language for “extremists you shouldn’t like,” as with “ultra-fundamentalist.”  For that matter, “fundamentalist” has long been an F-bomb. As the aforementioned Stylebook states (and as this site frequently notes), the term “has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations” and generally should not be used “unless a group applies the word to itself” -- a good principle for the abortion wars.

The above reflections were provoked by one of the Religion Guy’s oldest –- and smartest –- friends, who commented a few days ago that polls showing wide fondness for candidate Donald Trump among self-identified “evangelicals” signal that this designation has now lost all meaning.

Newswriters have spotted the split between most evangelical leaders (quietly or openly anti-Trump) and the grassroots (largely pro in some regions). Said friend means there’s an emerging gap between “evangelicals” who are religious in the pre-2015  understanding over against some emotional, attitudinal or cultural "evangelical" identity bereft of religious substance that Trump appeals to.  

Which means the Religion Guy’s Jan. 17 "define evangelical" Memo is already out of date!

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