The words used in news can report — or distort

Participants declared themselves the part of the “99 Percent,” to highlight their claim that that 1 percent of Americans control much of the country’s wealth.

The New York Times

This seemingly innocuous sentence appears as a bit of background at this morning in a story about Occupy Wall Street. The story says that the city won’t force protesters to leave Zuccotti Park just yet so that it can be cleaned. It appeared after a night in which protesters mopped and cleaned the park themselves while preparing for a face-off with New York police today.

The story was news. The sentence in italics above a bit of context near the bottom. Context, that is, except for the word “claim.”  Claim is defined as “an assertion of fact” as in “he claimed he was telling the truth,” reports  As I teach my students, the word claim, as noun or verb, implies that what’s claimed may not actually be true. As a mere assertion of truth, a claim, then, is shrouded in some suspicion. The verb, “said,” is certainly more neutral. So The Times reports that the city “says” the protesters won’t have to leave. It doesn’t report the city “claims” that.

But in the case of the statement that the richest 1 percent of Americans control “much of the country’s wealth,” it’s questionable whether any attribution at all is needed. This is verifiable  fact, grounded in mounds of governmental and private data.

It’s certainly not a claim. If it were, I highly doubt, for example, that a well-regarded public policy magazine such as the Atlantic would have printed a cover story in September noting (not claiming) that a Citigroup report in 2005 found that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans control wealth equal to the lower 90 percent of Americans.

Does the equivalent of 90 percent of Americans’ wealth in the hands of 1 percent equate to that wealthiest 1 percent controlling “much wealth?” It certainly seems indisputable to me.

 The Times and other media need in these turbulent times to be more vigilant about the words they use to characterize.


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
This entry was posted in media coverage, new york times, Occupy Boston, Occupy Wall Street, subtle bias in news, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The words used in news can report — or distort

  1. Old Jules says:

    You’re a teacher. Surely it comes as no surprise to you that language is a tool and the written word inevitably includes the slant of bias, an attempt to persuade the reader.

  2. Pingback: The words used in news can report — or distort: Part II | News Prints

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