Honest civic debate demands media be wise to word tricks

Virgin America, the new discount airline, has adopted one of the hotel industry's most annoying ploys. It calls those who sit in its seats "guests" instead of what they really are: customers.

Virgin America, the new discount airline, has adopted one of the hotel industry's most annoying ploys. It calls those who sit in its seats "guests" instead of what they really are: customers.

Misleading language of this kind is a favorite tool for people who try to sway public opinion, whether through advertising or PR. Linguistics professor George Lakoff calls this process "framing," or "getting language that fits your world view."

It's not always dishonest. When it is, however, the technique degrades one of the foundations of a healthy society: honest discourse.

Yet these tricks are all too common. They insult our intelligence - once we think about them - but they work often enough that the tricksters don't quit.

One reason is that journalists tend to adopt some of the most flagrantly misleading language wholesale. Whether this is the result of laziness, or worse, is irrelevant- news organizations should avoid being a party to propaganda.

The business community has engaged in this practice for decades, and "hotel guest" is the canonical example of absurdity. I don't know about your policy, but no guest in my house is required to pay me. I also cringe when American Express tells me I'm a "cardmember" instead of - again - customer.

The entertainment industry has turned "pirate" into a word for all those who use digital files in an unsanctioned way. Real pirates murder, rape, and rob.

But these business people are downright honorable, however, compared with the government types who warp language to downplay more serious behavior. The new century is already replete with ugly examples.

Consider "detainee," as applied to the people we have imprisoned in Guantanamo; the word does not begin to reflect the reality. Being detained has two common meanings. Being held involuntarily is one of them, and even in that context the holding is usually for a short period. The other meaning is to be delayed, a kind of inconvenience.

The people we're holding indefinitely in the Guantanamo prison - with few or no rights, and no proof of their bad acts, yet in many cases with little or no hope of ever being freed - are not merely being detained. They are prisoners. Period. We shame ourselves not to call them that, but if we did they'd certainly have more rights, because prisoners of war do have rights.

Euphemisms for torture are similarly twisted. "Enhanced interrogation techniques" has an almost benign ring. Waterboarding? Sounds like an amusement park ride, but America successfully prosecuted Japanese soldiers on war crimes charges for precisely this sort of activity, which involves subjecting people to near-drowning.

Then there's "rendition," a word that puts makeup on another ugly practice. Rendition is a process of kidnapping people suspected of bad acts and sending them to places where "enhanced interrogation techniques" and inhumane prison conditions are routine.

When we don't face the truth of what we do, and put smiley faces on unsavory acts, we do more than misuse language. We dishonor ourselves.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His blog is at bayosphere.com/blog/dangillmor. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (
www.citmedia.com/blog).

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