Word choice can be extremely important to readers on the lookout for bias. There are often shades of difference even between close synonyms, and those differences can appear meaningful.
By DEREK DONOVAN
The Kansas City Star
In this election year, descriptions of politicians policy views and voting records have already brought a lot of comments to my lines. One of the more interesting topics has been the use of the word moderate.
The Page A1 centerpiece on Aug. 19 looked at the issues of compromise and moderation in government, and stories earlier in the month looked at the division between conservatives and moderates in the Kansas Republican Party.
But those words can mean different things to different people. For example, one caller said he would call himself generally conservative, but he doesnt share some of the core values of many self-proclaimed conservative politicians.
Its my feeling that we have and by we I mean all of us, including the news media let a segment that is more extreme than most of us take over a name, he told me. And to me, that devalues or at least I guess redefines the name.
I think hes absolutely right there. To listen to radio pundits or read anonymous comments on websites, you would think all those on the left want as many abortions as possible to occur, and that everyone on the right wants to force every U.S. citizen to take an oath of permanent (conservative) Christianity.
Conservative and liberal are convenient shorthand, though they arent exact antonyms. In my experience, the left has a wider variety of words it uses, including progressive and contemporary. Is that because those on the left never see issues in black and white, as the old bit of wisdom dictates? Sorry, but I see plenty of evidence to the contrary after years of interaction with passionate, articulate readers on that side of the aisle who have no problem with making stark divisions of right and wrong themselves.
But nobody owns any of these terms. Theres a big difference between a big galaxy and a big cocker spaniel, wrote one recent emailer. Moderate and conservative are relative terms which only have meaning inside a given political context. There are moderates in the Iranian Parliament.
In a political context, the moderate would presumably be the person nearest the middle or greatest number of voters. The moderate would be the person who holds the record for most votes ever received in any Kansas election for Senate in 2004, and the second-most votes ever received for Governor in 2010: Sam Brownback. Given the modern Kansas political context, the folks to his left have at best a disputable claim to the term moderate.
Thats a novel point of view I havent heard often and I can also practically hear the screams of outrage such a provocative comment is sure to engender. But its defensible. Moderate can be a synonym for mainstream, and mainstream can mean popular.
It reminds me of the readers who objected to a graphic with the Aug. 19 story, ranking members of Congress by their voting records according to the nonpartisan website VoteView. On the Senate side, it gave Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, a rating of 52, just over the line to the conservative side of the 1-100 scale. Claire is one of the most far-left politicians Ive ever seen! said one emphatic caller the next day.
These examples point out just how relative terms can be, and why theyre such a potential pitfall for journalists not to mention all of us.
Its part of human nature to consider ones own opinions as common sense and levelheaded. Opinion pieces trade in labels and loaded terminology to make a point, but the straight news coverage needs to play things down the middle. I know readers will continue to point out where they think the language is loaded.