December 07, 2006

America's Least Wanted?

This is a reflection on Mark Liberman's post, "An Early New Year's Resolution," some advice to linguists when they deal with the media.

Okay, I admit it. I was the linguist whose contribution was cited (15 seconds worth) on the November 18, 2006 television program, America's Most Wanted. No, it didn't mention my name (thank God). As is so often the case, the media didn't use what I told them the way I would have wanted. No, it wasn't all that interesting but there seems to be a lesson here. Mark warned himself to never mention words for snow to any journalist at any time. That's one solution. There seems to be little reason to believe that our reports come out the way we think they should.

The tape recorded telephone call that America's Most Wanted sent me for analysis was only about 30 seconds long. From this I was asked to discover whatever I could about the unknown speaker's regional and social dialect. From the beginning I warned the program about how tentative any such analysis would have to be. In that brief sample I found no clues that could place the speaker in the South, New England, the Inland North, the West, or the Southwest. Then, not mentioning most of my qualifiers "could," "may," and "perhaps," the program made it seem pretty certain that the caller was from a region somewhere along the North Midland/South Midland dialect areas of the Midwest. Very briefly a map of this area flashed on the screen and the information was treated with much more authority than I tried to give it. I couldn't give them much of diagnosis. But then, there wasn't much to diagnose.

It seems that more and more frequently the media are asking linguists to contribute to stories, programs and articles. This can be a good thing. A handful of reporters do it very well but many others take a quick look at what we give them, cull out only that which suits their preconceived notions, sometimes get it wrong, and often ignore what we believe to be the really important stuff we've told them. I suppose journalists believe they have a right to do this and I suppose we can only be embarrassed when any damage is done. But it gets pretty discouraging when, as happened to me a few years ago, a prominent magazine reported that I said I could tell when  someone was lying when what I actually told the reporter was exactly the opposite of this.

So why do linguists keep on getting sucked into cooperating with the media when we have a pretty good reason to think that what we say won't come out the way we thought it should? I suppose some harbor the fond hope of getting 15 seconds of media fame. Wrong. Or, as in my experience with America's Most Wanted, a friend who I respect referred the reporter to me and I felt some kind of obligation to that friend. Wrong again. Or we want the facts to be accurate and to see our field become better known and appreciated. A much better motivation. Whatever the reason, we agree to a brief interview or provide a written statement that is far too often misunderstood, mutilated, or inadequately summarized.

But let those in the media who distort or cut corners beware. Language Log is on the alert for questionable representations of our linguistic contributions, as evidenced by the way Mark revealed how the BBC got wrong what a famous British phonetician told a reporter about the report that cows moo with a regional accent (September 3, 2006) And Mark's post, "Silly Season in the BBC Science Section" (August 26, 2006) doesn't seem to be limited to science reporting.

So dear media friends, be vigilant. As my cleaning lady once commented during the Nixon impeachment hearings, "What's done in the dark will come out in the light."

Posted by Roger Shuy at December 7, 2006 01:58 PM