May, 2018

Trigger Words

It was in the late 1950's that I took my first steps into the world of the news media.  My mentor was the late seasoned and highly respected Chicago newsman Walter Carlson.  I came to Chicago with some baggage: an eastern accent and Pennsylvania Dutch expressions.  We worked long and hard on words like "beautiful" (eastern accent: beau-dee-ful), and "sour" (Pennsylvania Dutch accent: sar, as in "jar").  Radio news people were to have what was called "a generic mid-west accent."  But the point of this editorial commentary  is not the accent; but rather, the presentation.

There has been a dramatic shift in the purpose of the news media and news reporters.  We have moved from factually, without interpretation, reporting of the news, to giving the facts along with what the listeners should believe about the facts; and sometimes even skewing the facts to implant a philosophical interpretation in the listeners' minds.

In the 1950's trigger words were absolutely forbidden.  What do I mean by "trigger words?"  Trigger words are words used in reporting the news which are designed to make the listeners draw conclusions from the facts which would be similar to the beliefs of the newsman or the organization for which he works.  For instance: on one side you might hear the term "anti-abortionists."  The parts of that word which produce a negative impression on the listener are "anti" and "ists;" the first being a negative and the last giving the impression of being cuiltic.  The opposite of that would be "those who support the murder for hire of our unborn children;" equally filled with trigger words - both designed to get a predictable reaction in the mind of the listener.  But these kinds of trigger words are being used in every sort of news story in the newspaper and on radio and television.  It is hard to find any news story which is completely factual and unbiased without the reporter inserting his or her opinion through the use of trigger words.

I have interviewed hundreds of politicians and people running for political office, including two presidents, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and hundreds of state and local office holders.  We were taught that when interviewing anyone running for office, our purpose was to give them the very best opportunity possible to delineate their positions and proposals if elected.  Today, it seems that the purpose of an interview is to paint the one running for office into a corner out of which they cannot talk themselves.  In the 2016 Presidential Debates, one moderator even got into an argument with one of the candidates.  That is a new low for anyone in the news media.

Let me close with this.  Everyone knows that UC-Berkley is one of the most liberal institutions of higher learning in the country (now, there are some trigger words for you; but then, this is an editorial, not a news report).  Some years ago, a number of professors and graduate students in the journalism department did a six month long study.  They recorded all of the news reports from CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.  They then analyzed them based on:
* Stories rported or passed over.
* The position of the stories in the newscast (the most
   important being first).
* The length and detail given to the stories.
* The amount of philosophical twist given to the stories.
The result: The students and professors determined that CNN was far to the left of center; the three major networks were left of center; Fox was to the right of center, but not as far to the right as the three major networks were to the left.  Wow!  And that from one of the most liberal organizations in the country!

After the reslts were in for the 2016 presidential election, the losing candidate told her followers that the results of the election show that the country is far more divided than anyone had suspected.  No!  The results of the election showed that the center line is much closer to Fox than even the UC-Berkley study showed.

Let me give you an example of a recent news story in which the trigger words were so sinister that most people wouldn't even catch them.  The story was on the CBS Evening News.  It had to do with spontaneous demonstrations held in cities all over the country on the same day.  One government official was reported as saying, "I wonder where the money trail for these demonstrations would lead us if we followed it."  To which the CBS news reported added, "We interviewed many of the demonstrators across the country and could not find any who had been paid to participate in the demonstrations."  That last sentence was designed to direct the isterners' attention away from the intent of the statement made by the official, and to make it sound rediculous.  The official had no intent to say that the demonstrators were paid to participate.  His statement had to do with where did the money come from to bus many of the demonstrators to the locations, and who paid for the identically designed and printed signs which appeared from coast-to-coast at these "spontaneous" demonstrations.

There is nothing wrong with news people expressing their opinions on the issues.  But such expressions of opinion should be identified as such so the listener can separate fact from expression.

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