When language is politicized, seek neutral words that foster understanding.

Strive to use words and phrases that accurately deliver information without taking sides on emotional or political issues. Politically loaded language not only violates our commitment to be fair, but also gets in the way of telling good stories. It makes readers and listeners stop to consider whether we’re biased in favor of one side or the other.

So, for example, we report about efforts to “overhaul” health care or tax policy, not the “reform” that advocates on all sides say they are pursuing. “Reform” is in the eye of the beholder. “Overhaul” is a better, less-charged word.

In such cases we go with what’s accurate. And err on the side of neutrality.

We also take the time to explain to our audience how certain words or phrases have taken on politically loaded meanings, as Joanne Silberner did in a November 1995 piece for All Things Considered. Reporting on the debate over certain abortions performed late in pregnancy, she noted that:

This time, the debate even extends to what the procedure is called. Opponents call it a ‘partial birth abortion,’ while supporters of abortion rights prefer the medical term ‘intact dilation and evacuation.’ Abortion opponents say the procedure is brutal and inhumane to the fetus, but abortion rights supporters say it can save the life of the mother and allow her to become pregnant again.

For guidance, NPR policy on many terms and phrases is collected on NPR’s internal wiki (under Grammar & Usage Guide). If you’re unsure and the subject isn’t covered there, ask the librarians and consult with our in-house experts — the correspondents and editors who cover controversial topics such as abortion, tax policy, climate change and others. They have likely already worked through the issues. Also feel free to talk it over with the Standards and Practices Editor (email Ethics).

October 17, 2011

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