Semantic gymnastics in media

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The tactic of changing style books in different print and electronic media is to change how news consumers think about what they’re hearing. I recall the first tactic was making ‘pro-life’ a pejorative. Then the style books changed and they were not to be called ‘pro-life’ anymore, but ‘anti’-something, as in ‘abortion-rights’, or ‘opponents of abortion rights’. You know, plant the negative connotation about a social movement and turn public opinion against them as a bunch of activists who want to take rights away.

It would be tempting to call it a game, but semantic engineering has changed the way we hear public debates about social issues. Control information and you control thought.

National Public Radio has taken that tactic to the next level. They’ve changed their style books again.

The folks at National Public Radio understand the power of words. Managing Editor David Sweeney announced yesterday that the station would no longer refer to people in the abortion debate as “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” Instead, the station will say “abortion rights advocates” and “abortion rights opponents,” according to a memo circulated to NPR staff.

In making this change, NPR is shifting the terms of the debate to make it more friendly to the pro-choice position.

This is a fair and reasonable article, and I like the critical thinking they apply here:

Is NPR planning on referring to advocates of gun control as “gun rights opponents”? As the Cato Institute’s David Boaz wrote earlier this month,

“In 415 NPR stories on abortion, I found only one reference to ‘abortion advocates,’ in 2005. There are far more references, hundreds more, to ‘abortion rights,’ ‘reproductive rights,’ and “women’s rights.’ And certainly abortion-rights advocates would insist that they are not ‘abortion advocates,’ they are advocates for the right of women to choose whether or not to have an abortion. NPR grants them the respect of characterizing them the way they prefer.”

I called Sweeney to ask him if NPR was going to change its terminology concerning gun rights. He did not return my call (I will post an update if he does).

NPR has chosen stilted terminology that conveys pro-choicers and pro-lifers in positive and negative lights, respectively. The station could just as easily (though perhaps with less aesthetic appeal) have labeled the two groups “pro-rights of the unborn” and “anti-rights of the unborn.”

And here’s the key, I think:

But NPR apparently does not see it that way. The station’s staff sees the issue — and now frames it on air — as a battle over women’s rights, not the rights of the unborn.

This debate will advance in greater strides when everyone can understand that it’s about both.

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