Last week the Columbia Journalism Review, a publication that polices journalism practices and policies, ran an article about the use of the terms “gambling” and “gaming” to describe gambling. The Review managed never to take a position on the dispute. In fact, the article appeared to have been written off the top of the author’s head after a trip to Las Vegas with little research.
In fact, among other things, writer Merrill Perlman seems to think the casino industry’s efforts to get people to use the term “gaming” is something new: “The casino industry in recent years has tried to get people to call what they do at casinos ‘gaming.’ ”
Perlman points at an online essay posted by the American Gaming Association, a lobby group until recently headed by former Nevada Republican Party Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf. The lobbyists have this to say, in part: “While some people assume the word ‘gaming’ was created as a way to ‘re-invent’ the casino industry, history tells a different story. The word ‘gaming’—defined as the action or habit of playing at games of chance for stakes—actually dates back to 1510, predating use of the word ‘gambling’ by 265 years.”
Of course, the rap on “gaming” is not that it is used to reinvent the industry but that it is used to soften the risks and consequences of gambling. That’s a straw man. As for that fact (if it is one) that “gaming” came before “gambling,” so what? “Drawing lots” came still earlier (Numbers 26:55-56, Joshua 14-21, Matthew 27:35). Does that mean we should use it? Longevity is not the issue.
The real issue is an ethical one. Should we, as reporters, take sides in policy issues by using language preferred by one side? It’s akin to the way reporters acted in Las Vegas in July 2002 when doctors went on strike at a trauma center to protest being held responsible for malpractice. Reporters took sides, supporting doctors and failing to give lawyers their fair say. One of the ways reporters took sides was by avoiding the term “strike,” instead looking for all kinds of euphemisms – “stoppage,” “protest,” “closure,” “closed its doors,” “shut its doors,” “refused to return,” “took themselves off their normal rotations.” I saw one story that used the term strike — in the 12th paragraph. The consequences of slanted coverage were substantial — a special session of the Legislature where doctors prevailed over lawyers.
Gambling is still a contentious policy issue in our society, even more so as technology introduces new ways of gambling that are faster, more tempting, and more likely to lead to addiction. “This is the crack cocaine of gambling,” said therapist Michael Boston of St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno in 1992, describing video poker.
At least we know why the gambling industry prefers the euphemism — it wants to lure people into gambling and it wants to manipulate reporters into helping. What we don’t know is the motive of some reporters for going along.
Even if ethics were not involved, precision is. The term “gaming” is vague and undiscriminating. It refers to everything from parcheesi for fun to church bingo for prizes to casino blackjack for money to video games to office politics. Gambling is precise. It’s wagering for money. What good reporter would intentionally opt for ambiguity?
“Language can be used to mislead and confuse, or to make certain ideas seem more profound than they really are,” writes critical thinking instructor Jonathan Chan of Saylor.org. “One main task of critical thinking is to identify these linguistic pitfalls.
Let us start with the first major pitfall — obscurity. ‘Obscurity’ here refers to unclear meaning. A concept or a linguistic expression can be unclear for various reasons. One reason is that it might be ambiguous, i.e. having more than one meaning. The other reason is that it might be vague. A term is said to be vague if there are borderline cases where it is indeterminate as to whether it applies or not.
Finally, a term might also have an unclear meaning in that its meaning is incomplete
Is that really the standard to which journalism should aspire?
To be sure, most journalism style requirements — including those of The Associated Press and The New York Times — call for use of “gambling.” But when commerce and journalism clash, journalism doesn’t always win, as Nevada readers know.