Tuesday, July 12, 2005

An Attack By Any Other Name . . .

Chris Bertram of the academic blog Crooked Timber highlights a peculiarity of the British press that put the experimental designer in me to the drawing board. It seems the BBC's editorial guidelines strongly discourage use of the word 'terror' (among others) in straight news reporting because its emotionally charged tenor "can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding." That got me thinking: to what extent do the words the media use to discuss events color our understanding of and policy preferences regarding those events? In other words, does the public distinguish in significant ways between mere "bombers" as opposed to "terrorists" or between "murders" and "assassinations"?

The fact that the American media use these terms interchangeably probably contributes to some degree of conceptual coagulation in the public consciousness. But it strikes me that one major difference between some of the loaded words the BBC eschews and their less controversial replacements is the former group's near-exclusive association in American minds with foreigners. The word "terrorism" is widely seen in this country as more of a shorthand for "violence committed by (usually) swarthy foreigners for no apparent commercial purpose" than a political method. One of the upshots of this theory is that the mainstream media in general neither labels Americans as terrorists nor does it connect politically motivated violence perpetrated by Americans to its foreign analogues. Another, I'd surmise, is that "terrorist" attacks against the government may stoke patriotism in a way that "kidnappers" and "insurgents" don't. Insofar as the perception of government as the metaphorical essence of a nation increases during times of international crisis, certain words may cause people to feel as if they themselves are being assaulted. Because of this, they may then form distorted opinions of the actual threat foreign extremists present.

It wouldn't be hard to set up an experiment in which two versions each of several news stories (printed or televised) were presented. One would use emotionally loaded words such as "terrorist," "liberator," and "execute," while the other would substitute words like "extremist," "military force," and "murder." I'd be interested in looking at differences in people's affective reactions, mnemonic impressions, and policy recommendations between the two conditions. My guess is that the loaded terms would inspire harsher reactions, stronger recollection of factual information tied to the terms, and more aggressive policy suggestions. These effects would obviously be moderated somewhat by participants' stated ideological and partisan orientations. To the extent that word choice in the news influences the electorate's political and economic decisions, it's a topic well worth investigating.