Loaded Language: Why Words Matter

“There haven’t really been riots. They’ve been – in actuality, since I was there – they’ve been demonstrations…A lot of…journalists don’t know how to spell ‘demonstration’ so they use the word ‘riot’ because it only has four letters.”

Micky Dolenz, 1967, discussing the Sunset Strip Curfew Clashes.

Some things never change.

Loaded language has always been one of the most problematic aspects of journalism and an offshoot from its stubborn refusal to use empiricism and emotional literacy.

Words can hurt.

Words can destroy.

Words can isolate.

Words can slander.

Words can traumatize.

Words can kill.

When people are the targets of manipulative word usage, it is not just a bruised ego at play: their neurobiology shifts. Cortisol levels increase with stress, for instance. If people feel defeated by the incessant abusive language out in the public sphere, their testosterone levels decrease. The prefrontal cortex becomes overwhelmed.

In 2022, journalists have no excuse for their word usage. If the pen is mightier than the sword then we need to look a little more closely at the weapon of choice. Journalists do not have the mandate or the right to cause emotional harm. Propaganda triggers the brain, and the bulk of propaganda rests on words.

Connotation and denotation are very different concepts, and we need to look closely at how words are wielded. It is an illness or a plague? Is it a former contender or a failed contender? Is it a demonstration or a riot?

Manipulators thrive by deliberately using demonization to describe a rival but deification to describe themselves. When a government wishes to control and break a rival, loaded language is their weapon of choice.

However, journalists cannot be journalists if they choose to be stenographers. The mandate is to question and challenge ideas the same way an empirically-focussed academic researcher challenges ideas. We are to test ideas and theories. We are to be critically skeptical of all information as we carefully vet every word spoken to us.

For journalists to properly function in the role, they must know the differences between reality and perception and interpretation and truth. They must understand that human biology isn’t perfect and is easily deceived. When a reporter regurgitates a press release verbatim, that journalist is allowing someone else to use loaded language freely, thereby polluting the information stream.

Loaded language tries to trick the scales by making thugs and bullies seem heroic, noble, or victimized. It is meant to make thieves look like titans, the incompetent look capable and abusers look innocent. Those who have a psychopathic mindset will use every trick at their disposal to continue to cause harm. Journalists cannot afford to play the same game: while they may allow themselves to be exploited for fleeting attention, once the abuser runs out of cards to play, those who played along find themselves being thrown under a bus as the abuser shows no gratitude or loyalty to the enablers.

When I began to examine the role of language in journalism, I was keenly interested in how language was being misused and misapplied. A jealous teenager wanting to spread lies and rumors about a perceived rival liberally uses deceptive loaded language to do so, but as adults, those games merely worsen a problem in the long run.

Journalism is a profession based entirely on fiat: and fiat isn’t ultimately swayed by propaganda or censorship: the more they are used, the less credible the user becomes. When innocent people are harmed by manipulative words, they don’t forgive or forget: they no longer trust or believe the press. Modern empires fell when regimes began to hide their problems as they maligned others, turning the news into a comical farce. When I worked as a journalist, I had informal sessions with a group of young former Eastern European students studying at one Canadian university who made fun of their fallen nation’s journalism, by merely referring to the news as “the propaganda.” They laughed. Even as children, they were extremely adept at seeing loaded language, and as young adults, they were more than happy to rattle off the examples to me.

In 2022, we are seeing a radical shift in the center of gravity: once upon a time, people trusted large outlets; today, people are becoming independent outlets themselves; however, despite the resurgence of the profession as a grassroots entity, the question of how to empirically measure words and their impact remains. Unlike any other incarnation of journalism before, the new model uses the psychological as its starting point. Psychology-based journalism is here. The old schoolers are still unaware of the shift. New journalists now begin with the psychological aspect first.

One size does not fit all. While the old guard tries to get the genie back into the bottle, the innovators and visionaries have already laid the groundwork for a different kind of reportage.

Today’s emerging models of journalism will not be able to grow without true emotional literacy, and no, emotional literacy doesn’t mean being sappy or permissive by justifying or enabling evil intent. Emotional literacy means seeing the world outside of the rote binary scaffolding of 1 and 0. Those who cling to the old ways are finding themselves on the wrong side of history. New journalism is critical, empirical, and emotionally literate, meaning that the days of allowing loaded language to go unchallenged are over.

Because in a world of infinity, to suggest there can be only a single right answer is deceptive. Those who cannot adapt to the rapidly changing world expect the world to go along with rigged scaffoldings meant to favor those who memorize steps and scripts and try to hide those gambits through loaded language.

It is why understanding language and psychology is essential for the new schools of journalism to thrive. Journalism is applied psychology, and when words wound or silence, they are not being used to describe the world but cause harm for someone else’s benefit. We are living in an age where corporations and governments openly pay for partisan tweets, former intelligence operatives train newsmakers how to bend the press to their favor, and nudge units boast about their ability to silently manipulate a public.

But this is also the era when, for the first time, there is a new breed of independent journalists who are exposing these ruses, and now have bigger audiences than the old school outlets.

Journalism isn’t about enabling those who cannot use emotional, lateral, or divergent thinking: it is about exposing their machinations so the world can find solutions, and ultimately thrive peacefully.