To understand failing trust in journalism, look at the words on the page

Much has been written about the potentially dangerous escalation of aggressive and hostile language in our politics. Following the Brexit referendum, exchanges became so acrimonious parties eventually signed a pledge to avoid hateful parlance as part of a #StopTheNastiness campaign. Concerns over the increasingly inflammatory nature of discourse have been raised by figures as disparate as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council. The focus of this linguistic scrutiny, however, has been on the somewhat obvious use of terminology directly evoking violent, war-like, or otherwise offensive imagery: talk of ‘betrayal’, ‘surrender’, ‘decapitation’, ‘lynching’, ‘traitors’ and ‘treason’ – a vocabulary used so frequently in parliament that in March 2019, then House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, felt compelled to intervene to tell MPs “none of you is a traitor” and the duty of MPs is “to do as he or she thinks is right”.

Other linguistic analyses have highlighted the rising use (and presumably acceptance) of cursing, like a study by Gizmodo which shows swearing by MPs on Twitter has increased more than tenfold in the last five years. (Not that one need even look to Twitter given our Prime Minister’s infamous utterance of “fuck business” and Matt Hancock’s rebuttal of “fuck fuck business”.)

Graph via Gizmodo

But there is a more nuanced, more insidious, and thus more pernicious abuse of language affecting our political landscape: that used by journalists in their reporting. As Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Journalists ought to recognise this ‘design’ and attempt to challenge it. After all, when delivering prepared speeches, politicians consider their words carefully, either to obfuscate, with complex language and off-puttingly dull, tedious sentences, or to simplify, with bland phrases that generalise to such a broad extent that they can mean anything to anyone and are impossible to disagree with (see slogans: ‘Take Back Control’, ‘Brexit means Brexit’, ‘Get Brexit Done’, or even ‘Make America Great Again’). Instead, across the board, in publications of all political persuasions and via all mediums, we are seeing and hearing the words of politicians echoed uncritically, sometimes even regurgitated verbatim. A journalist’s role is not simply to parrot what has already been said, but to objectively analyse its veracity, yet we have evolved into a world where the specificity of language appears to be deemed insignificant even by many of those whose profession depends upon it.

It is concerning to read in a post-election analysis by Laura Keunssberg, the BBC’s political editor, that “…Brexit, at least part one – to use his [Boris’] slogan – will be done,” and in a tweet by Tom Newton Dunn, political editor for The Sun, that “safe to say, Brexit is now getting done.” It is dismaying when BBC reporter, Kevin Peachey, writes for BBC Online, “A pensions bill is, to use one of Mr Johnson’s phrases, oven-ready,” or when The Guardian’s economics commentator Aditya Chakrabortty concludes Labour’s “position [on Brexit] is not as terrible as the mockers make out; what’s costing them dear is the – to coin a phrase – dither and delay it has taken to adopt it.” It doesn’t matter that in some of the above instances, these phrases are attributed – attributing words to politicians by simply throwing quotation marks around them isn’t enough to distance the publication or the journalist from the statement. Propaganda works through repetition of an idea, the context largely doesn’t matter. As columnist Patrick Cockburn wrote back in 2012, “There is much more at stake here than merely cleaning up a nation’s prose style. Certain phrases seek to reshape perception.”

Reshape perception. In the battle of ideas, this is the frontline. Anyone who thinks otherwise, or believes they are immune from the innate power of words must also believe advertising is a pointless industry, speechwriters contribute nothing, and novels cannot change opinion. Such people might be interested to learn that, in 2019, an estimated $28.37 billion was spent on advertising in the UK alone, and a 2018 analysis of more than three quarters of a million Facebook adverts found most headlines were only five words in length on average. Clearly then, what those words are and what reaction they provoke in readers is hugely important. Those figures are indicative, too, that a very small number of words can elicit a change in readers’ behaviour (whether to click on an advert, or vote for a different party).

In Boris Johnson’s victory speech, he spoke of the Labour voters who had “lent” the Conservatives their vote. An innocuous enough phrase, but one with a strong subtext: you are still in control, this vote is yours to take back, I am here at your behest and you can just as easily remove me again. It was a reassuring message to voters uncertain about what a Johnson victory might mean for them. So far, so good: it’s the kind of shrewd rhetoric you would expect a leader to use. It’s not, however, a message you would expect journalists to regurgitate over and over in their own coverage. Lets pause for a moment and consider the idea of ‘vote lending’. Are not all votes ‘lent’ in so far as at every election, the original voters can choose to reallocate them? They are not a permanent gift. Voters are expected to change their minds – if they weren’t, the whole premise of holding an election would fall apart since aside from new voters, the results would be returned the same every time. Someone ‘lending their vote’ in plain, unloaded English, is simply someone voting. Thus this Yorkshire Post headline: ‘Boris Johnson vows not to let down voters in the North who lent him their vote but would usually vote Labour’ (note no attribution quotes on the word ‘lent’), could be more accurate and less propagandising if written, ‘Boris Johnson says he won’t let down voters in the North who voted Conservative but would usually vote Labour’.

If you doubt the potency of this sloganising, even after ‘Get Brexit Done’ and ‘Take Back Control’ won two different elections, here is an opinion piece in The Telegraph by Gisela Stuart, former chair of Vote Leave and now chair of its successor organisation, Change Britain, where she utilises an inordinate amount of this language in attempting to persuade readers that: ‘Boris will not betray his promise to the Leave voters who lent him their support.’ The word ‘lent’ is unattributed, the phrase ‘get brexit done’ is in the first paragraph, by the third she is writing of his ‘“oven ready” deal’, a few sentences later she’s recalling the Vote Leave ‘promise’ to ‘take back control’ before ‘get brexit done’ pops up for a second time and she reiterates that Labour votes are ‘on loan’. These are not phrases and words that Gisela, nor anyone else, has plucked at random from their own lexicon. They are soundbites which have been strategically designed to influence the electorate, and they should not be flippantly appropriated and reused by journalists too lazy to interrogate them.

Alan Rusbridger, formerly editor of The Guardian recognised in his analysis of Election 2019, that “‘Get Brexit Done’ was brilliant…this is an age of simplicity, not complexity. Even the so-called mainstream media will do far more to amplify that slogan rather than question it.” Meanwhile, Veronica Koller, linguist and reader in discourse studies at the University of Lancaster, describes the careful intention of Boris’ ‘oven-ready’ terminology: “The idea is that Johnson negotiated a Brexit deal with the EU that is quick and convenient to implement.” But it’s more than that, ‘oven-ready’ evokes the comfort of home baking, the anticipation of warm sustenance, the imminent sating of hunger – it is a powerfully positive image.

Not all examples are as blatant as those above, though, or this from The Times: ‘Now for the Boris Johnson revolution’ – where ‘revolution’ is a word directly lifted from Boris Johnson’s statement and not even attributed with quotation marks in the headline. Often the persuasive terms are common, inconspicuous, and seemingly harmless.

Consider the word ‘more’, put through its paces this election period as the Conservatives repeatedly promoted a policy of adding 50,000 more nurses by 2024/25, a figure which includes 19,000 existing nurses. Despite the murky legitimacy of this claim and the pledge being challenged by journalists in broadcast interviews and policy analyses, it was nonetheless repeated widely in print without caveats or qualifiers, including in this BBC headline: “Conservatives pledge ‘50,000 more nurses for NHS'”, and in the BBC’s manifesto guide, which they compiled “to help you decide who you might vote for”.

Example lifted directly from the BBC’s manifesto guide, complete with zero caveats on any policy claims.

Note, also, when it came to policing, the word ‘new’ didn’t escape manipulation either. Are they ‘new’ officers if you first reduce the number to create a new baseline, and then top it back up again? That’s effectively been the Conservative’s approach to policing numbers, which they reduced by 20,600 between 2010 and 2019, and are now boasting they will expand with 20,000 ‘new’ officers. The number of police officers in England and Wales is at close to the lowest recorded level since the early 1980s. Don’t take my word for it, that’s verbatim from independent fact-checking organisation, FullFact. But by its very definition, ‘new’ implies fresh, not previously in existence, it has a positive implication. People say they have a new house, a new car, new friends – but rarely will you hear someone speaking of a new cancer diagnosis, or a new injury, or that they’ve been newly fired. Often, the word isn’t even necessary, like in this BBC article from July 2019: “Recruitment of 20,000 new police officers to begin ‘within weeks’”. If they are being freshly recruited, self-evidently, they will be ‘new’.

In the same vein, the flippant use of the word ‘boost’. An article proclaiming ‘Boris pledges boost to NHS spending’ like this one in The Guardian might less enthusiastically be headed, ‘Boris says he will increase NHS spending’. Intentionally or otherwise, ‘boost’ is unmistakably positive. Indeed, the first definition in Collins Dictionary says: “If one thing boosts another, it causes it to increase, improve, or be more successful.” By itself though, an increase need not lead to improvement or more success; it would be dependent on the scale of increase, and so the word ‘boost’ presumes the positive outcome without allowing for any other interpretation.

When I studied journalism – not too long ago, I might add – I was taught to avoid verbs that applied a level of subjectivity to someone’s intent. We were instructed to use ‘says’ in almost every context, ensuring that we were never giving more weight to a quote than the words themselves suggested. Despite being advocated by university tutors, it seems this approach is being neglected in the newsroom. Whereas ‘Boris says he will forge a new Britain’ is accurate and impartial, increasingly favoured are versions such as, ‘Boris vows to forge a new Britain’ or ‘Boris promises to forge a new Britain’ – ‘promises’ and ‘vows’ being much stronger and more insistent words. Interestingly, for that story, emotive language was used across almost every national news outlet, including The Guardian, Sky, The Times, the BBC and The Telegraph, while across the pond in the US, the New York Times reported the exact same story in a more reserved manner: “After Election Victory, Boris Johnson Says ‘We Are Going to Unite’”. If reporters imbue every utterance by a politician with the sanctity of an unbreakable vow, the public will see ‘promises’ repeatedly broken and the idea of trust in politics will forever seem oxymoronic.

These subtleties in language matter all the more when they appear in headlines, which in turn appear in push notifications on millions of people’s phones. As Pew research showed in 2016, “only about half of those who ever get them click through to the full story or search for more information.” There’s a chance this figure is even lower now, given how much more commonly used push alerts are (research by NiemanLab shows the weekly average of push alerts from news apps overall increased 16 percent from 2017 to 2018). That means for a huge number of people, a pithy headline with leading language will be all they have to form their opinion on the story and its subjects.

It’s widely acknowledged that journalism is in trouble, that trust is thin on the ground, that misinformation and disinformation are resulting in confusion and cynicism. Even journalism as basic as fact-checking is met with skepticism, as Jen Birks, Assistant Professor in Media and Political Communication at the University of Nottingham points out:  “For some people encountering fact-checking journalism on Twitter, the very idea of journalists ruling on the truthfulness of what a politician says is a subjective endeavour.” If journalists are ever to rectify this, it is imperative they don’t allow politicians to put words in their mouths, nor give those words more potency than they deserve: the resulting journalism might be dry, but it will be factual.