Words: Use them truthfully, wisely


There is a sort of round- robin email dialogue with my brother and several friends that I am part of and that has been going on for years. Recently, we received an email message that contained this sentence: “Regarding your recent discourse on government-forced vaccinations, here is perhaps some new information you might find interesting.”

I wrote back, “I like that ‘government-forced vaccinations’ term. How come no one called it ‘government-forced labor’ when we were drafted into the military? And how come no one calls them ‘ignorant, self-centered parents who imperil their own and everyone else’s children’?”

As it happened, I was kind of ready for that message. I had recently noticed that “forced” has been getting quite a workout — on both right and left — in political public relations.

In April, a news release referred to Nevada Assembly Bill 405 as “Forced Parental Notification (which) would endanger access to safe abortion services for Nevada’s young women, especially those who are victims of abuse.”

The American Gaming (Gambling) Association last week put out a news release headlined “NFL’s Forced Cancellation of Las Vegas Convention Reflects Outdated Perception of Casino Industry.”

A Fox News television channel in California’s Central Valley headlined a story about residents of Carmichael, “Local Residents Not Happy About Forced Pesticide Spraying.”

I even found an instance in which I used it recently, in a historical piece: “In an atrocity committed by George Washington, after more than 200 colonials whose enlistments had ended prepared to leave for home, Washington forced them back into military service, then forced several members of the group to serve as a firing squad and kill their leaders (‘This was a most painful task, and when ordered to load, some of them shed tears,’ reported a unit physician).”

Perhaps next April 15, the headlines will be some version of “Americans forced to pay taxes.”

Want another example of manipulation of the language? Consider “reform.” Merriam-Webster: “to improve (someone or something) by removing or correcting faults, problems, etc.” Random House: “1. The improvement of what is wrong, corrupt, etc. 2. An improvement in conduct, character, etc.”

Why would anyone put it in a news story? This is a term that has no place in a news story unless it is between quotation marks. It is a loaded term. The instant it enters a story text, the story slants.

Here’s an example from the KRNV News website: “The Nevada Supreme Court has rejected one effort toward reform in the state’s judicial system.” It’s pretty easy to tell who the bad guys are here.

So journalists should use the term “change” instead. Yet they use “reform” incessantly in supposed fair news coverage.

It’s easy to understand why Chicago’s right-wing Heartland Institute used this headline on its website: “Nevada Lawmaker Renews Fight for Public Pension Reform.”

But in Nevada, there was fierce disagreement over changes in the state workers retirement system at this year’s Nevada Legislature. So why, in real news stories did we see phrases like “discussions about how to reform Nevada’s retirement system” and headlines like “Nevada PERS pension reform put off until next session”?

Various news entities used the term “reform” to apply to issues like guns, entertainment taxes, collective bargaining, school “choice,” even knives.

Who are journalists to define one side of an issue as representing “reform”? It is easy to understand, though, why PR people spend so much time manipulating reporters into using the term. If they can get us to define their cause as reform, they’re halfway home.

Public schools have got to find ways of training students self-defense against manipulative words and teach courses known in Europe as media literacy. In his song “Words Words Words,” Pete Seeger asked, “How much of truth remains?”

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.