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Semantic slanting

(This article is based on a chapter in JOURNALISM ETHICS: PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS FOR NEWS MEDIA (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), John C. Merrill's comprehensive and well-researched book on journalism morality. The title of the chapter is "Korzybski to the Rescue.")

In the early part of the 20th century, Alfred Korzybski, a Polish polymath with a keen interest in the relationship of words to facts, proposed a general system of evaluation to help people make more accurate assessments of themselves and the world. He labeled his system "general semantics" (GS).

Since language provides the means and the environment by which we evaluate, much of general semantics involves studying the effects of language (and other symbol systems) on our behavior. Merrill notes that such study should have particular relevance for journalists, as words are the fundamental tools of their craft. He specifically states, "An orientation to general semantics will raise the linguistic consciousness of journalists, bring them to a higher level of sophistication, instill in them a recognition of the weaknesses and the power of words, and generally help them overcome the enslaving tendencies of language."1 This article examines eleven basic ideas of general semantics and four GS observations that led Merrill to his conclusions.

Eleven Basic GS Ideas And Their Relevance To Media Ethics
The word is not the thing: General semanticists say, "The map is not the territory." The symbol is not the object or event that is symbolized. For example, when we describe a "flower" we should be aware that "real" flowering is an ever-changing process that entails air, light, water, and soil. When using words, we should not fool ourselves into thinking we are fully describing an actual flower. The word is not the thing. This principle is even more important when we are discussing abstract terms like freedom, justice, patriotism, democracy, and responsibility.

My article titled "Democracy Here is Not Necessarily Democracy There, " which appears in the April 2006 issue of ETC: A Review of General Semantics, illustrates this point. The concluding paragraph reads "President Bush believes that 'democracy, ' in the way we use that term, can move the Iraqi people to have happier and more productive lives. Maybe it can. But maybe people who have been conditioned to accept orders from authorities such as clerics have a different conception of democracy. Maybe they believe, like America's founding fathers and the citizens of ancient Athens, that it is within proper democratic bounds to restrict the rights of women and other groups. Only time will tell which definition of democracy will prevail."2

Stay low on the abstraction ladder: In communicating with others, don't use abstract terms when you can use more meaningful-more specific-ones. For example, when expressions like pornography, good Christians, arrogant government officials, fundamentalists, or concerned voters are used in a story, it is helpful for the journalist to explain them. If possible, the journalist should give specific examples of what the subjects do or what they believe, in order to clarify a story's meaning.

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