Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mr. Postman, look and see

This weekend's required reading includes this absolutely choice excerpt from an essay by the late Neil Postman, "The Bias Of Language, The Bias Of Pictures", borrowed from the book How To Watch TV News.
...even when attempting to use purely descriptive language, a journalist cannot avoid expressing an attitude about what he or she is saying. For example, here is the opening sentence of an anchor’s report about national examinations: “For the first time in the nation’s history, high-level education policymakers have designed the elements for a national examination system similar to the one advocated by President Bush.”

This sentence certainly looks like it is pure description although it is filled with ambiguities. Is this the first time is our history that this has been done? Or only the first time that high-level education policymakers have done it? Or is it the first time something has been designed that is similar to what the President has advocated? But let us put those questions aside. (After all, there are limits to how analytical one ought to be.) Instead, we might concentrate on such words as “high-level,” “policymakers,” and “designed.” Speaking for ourselves, we are by no means sure that we know what a “high-level policymaker” is, although it sounds awfully impressive. It is certainly better then a “low-level policymaker,” although how one would distinguish between the two is a bit of a mystery. Come to think of it, a low-level “policymaker” must be pretty good, too, since anyone who makes policy must be important.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that what was done was “designed.” To design something usually implies careful thought, preparation, organization, and coherence. People design buildings, bridges, and furniture. If your experience has been anything like ours, you will know that reports are almost never designed; they are usually “thrown together,” and it is quite a compliment to say that a report was designed.

The journalist who paid this compliment was certainly entitled to do it even though he may not have been aware of what he was doing. He probably thought he had made a simple description, avoiding any words that would imply favor or disfavor. But if so, he was defeated in his effort because language tends to be emotion-laden. Because it is people who do the talking, the talk almost always includes a feeling, an attitude, a judgment. In a sense, every language contains the history of a people’s feelings about the world. Our words are baskets of emotion. Smart journalists, of course know this. And so do smart audiences. Smart audiences don’t blame anyone for this state of affairs. They are, however, prepared for it.
UPDATE: I added a few more paragraph divisions that weren't there originally, just for the sake of readability.

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