November 13, 2005

Moral evaluation in the news

In response to yesterday's post on "Evil", several readers wrote in to ask what planet I've been living on. How could it surprise me that journalists put opinions into news reports?

But it didn't, of course. The opinions of reporters and editors are reflected in a whole sequence of choices, starting with what to write about. Given that the topic is chosen, you get to pick whom to quote, and how to get interviewees to give you your conclusion back in quotable form, or at least to pretend that they did. You can decide whether or not to specify the agents responsible for a given event. Finally, you can choose your words, and choose which of them to put in scare quotes or to set off with qualifiers like "What X's call ___".

However, this is Language Log, and not Politics of Journalism Log. We've generally commented on this sort of thing only when it deals with linguistic topics, or uses linguistically-relevant techniques. In yesterday's post, I was commenting on two things. The first thing that caught my eye was the use of the word "evil", in Michael Slackman's own voice. I'm not used to seeing this word used in papers like the New York Times, in a news story outside of a quotation, even when the subject is something like a politically unconnected rape and murder. The usual practice, when strong and explicit moral judgments are to be made, is to find someone to quote. And as I thought about this, and read the Reuters coverage and the BBC piece by Jon Leyne, I was reminded that news stories about political bombings, especially in the Middle East, often don't even take the step of expressing opinion by evoking morally evaluative quotes.

In the case of this particular bombing, there seems to have been an unusual amount of moral evaluation in the rhetoric of politicians, whom journalists can't entirely avoid quoting. I surmise this is a symptom of the same cause that led to the NYT's choices: the ethnic identity of the innocent civilians who were murdered, and the political issues that are thereby (not) invoked.

I've noticed that even Reuters, contrary to its stated policy against using the words terrorist and terrorism outside of quotation marks, sometimes uses these words in headlines and news stories: "Australia foils terrorist attack"; "Asia terrorist suspect may be dead, but threat remains"; "Bosnian police last month arrested a Turk and a Bosnian-born Swedish citizen suspected of terrorist-related activities"; "Warfare wanes and terrorism rises, new study says". In most of these cases, there is a quasi-quotative context lurking around, involving legal charges or official suspicion or an authoritative report that uses the words in question. Still, I might have expected Reuters to use scare quotes in such cases, if their policy were being consistently applied. Though I'll confess that I don't know the facts about how often Reuters or other outlets have historically used such scare quotes in their headlines and reporting over time and space -- perhaps someone interested in journalistic bias has done such a study?

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 13, 2005 09:07 AM