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The Golden Rule #4

Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism

George Orwell is rolling over in his grave. Wait. Delete that. The spirit of George Orwell is wrestling with The Worms near the withered stones of Sutton Courtenay. Lesson learned.

In his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell forces us to answer these questions: Do foolish thoughts prompt foolish language? Or does foolish language prompt foolish thoughts? What comes first? The thought or the word? Orwell wrote in 1946, “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” For Orwell, modern political speech has become so littered with clichés, euphemisms, and other vague mumblings that its meanings are dead. The guiltiest party? Politicians. However, since March 2003, the words and phrases journalists have scribbled while reporting Iraq are beyond slovenly; in fact, they are so irresponsible that journalists are stubbing politicians’ heels in second place.

The mainstream media’s failures in covering Iraq (and to an even greater extent, Afghanistan) are well documented. In fact, the media has shared as much blame for this war’s failures as the Bush administration, and while Dick, George, and Congress pre-emptively launched America into Iraq, the mainstream media has glued us there by muddying Iraq’s realities. This Media Matters dispatch and Editor & Publisher article recap some of those criticisms.

Words matter. And the words journalists have used since the March 2003 invasion have not clarified the complexities and nuances in Iraq. In fact, they have only confused, divided, and misinformed. In the echo chamber of today’s media, the first to utter those words are usually politicians, so journalists must scrutinize the language then replicate the echo, if warranted, with diligence. As the fourth estate, journalists must be a balance and not a mirror.

Roy Peter Clark, a Senior Scholar at the Poynter Institute, who also conjured Orwell’s ghost and the relevance of the sage’s “Politics” essay, wrote “Civil War and Civil Language: Word Choice and the Newsroom,” which astutely captures the challenges of using the clumsy, confusing, and paradoxical phrase “civil war”. This phrase is one among many that have been used inaccurately by various media outlets. Among those complexities, Clark notes, is the reality that “civil war” connotes different meanings to different audiences. His suggestion is wise: “Journalists should avoid the widespread and unreflective use of the term ‘civil war.’ To use it is to play into the hands of those who would de-certify the press by framing us as against our government and American interests abroad. More important, ‘civil war’ is too vague an abstraction to describe all that is happening on the ground in Iraq. The violence comes from Americans, from civilians, from militia, from various Muslim sects (against foreigners and each other), from mercenaries, from criminal gangs, from foreign jihadists. It is less the job of the foreign correspondent to summarize information in abstract language than to report in concrete and specific terms on what is happening.”

Clark also points to a provocative Los Angeles Times article which further illustrates the difficulty of defining “civil war”. As this article reveals, that a significant debate even exists about the phrase’s usage is evidence that it does not muster the precision we expect from journalists. Instead of conveniently hiding beyond convoluted phrases such as “civil war,” journalists should report what is happening with verifiable details and facts. Calling Iraq a “civil war” is still a matter of opinion and interpretation.

We expect politicians to mislead, but not journalists, for they are the stewards of truth, accuracy, and subsequently, history. Is one’s diction a matter of ethics? Frankly, I’m not sure, but I’d like to think so. Especially as a journalist.

I suspect Mr. Orwell is smiling now, having won another match with those testy worms.

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