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Home > Publications > Quill > Descriptive language can paint wrong picture


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Friday, December 1, 2006
Descriptive language can paint wrong picture

Commentary by Sally Lehrman

Metaphors are such great friends to a writer. They help us make abstract concepts accessible and ideas more clear.

But are metaphors really trustworthy? Linguist Otto Santa Ana studies the use of figurative language in the news media, and what he has discovered might surprise you. Our friendly metaphors can blind our audiences to other points of view. They can tilt the scale. They can undermine accuracy. Above all, we always need more than one, Santa Ana warned a crowd at Stanford University recently.

Indeed, imagery does help us explain the world around us and communicate to our audiences. But metaphors are loaded, and not just with meaning. Most pack a political perspective as well. And that’s how journalists can find themselves unintentionally promoting a point of view.

“We treat metaphors as if they are ‘natural,’ common sense,” says Santa Ana, an associate professor in the department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA. When we use metaphors to make ideas more clear, we need to consider whose ideas these images put front and central. Take the way we write about schools. Santa Ana identifies three sets of images.

Referring to education as a path can lead to constructions such as:

“Latino students now keep pace with their peers.”

“Few African-American students are routed into AP courses.”

Comparing schooling to a river can lead to:

“Immigrant students try to learn enough English to join the mainstream.”

“‘We’ll continue to be in the backwaters of education, and we can’t afford to let that happen,’ the governor said.”

While these metaphors sound simple and direct on the surface, they incorporate different ideas about education. The path portrays education as the personal responsibility of the individual student, who is following a designated route at a pace based on drive and ability, Santa Ana says. The river also is a route to be traveled, but the student is carried along, not self-propelled. Children flow along toward socialization.

We also often use images that portray schools as factories, although we don’t usually use that term. But we might write:

“The program provides tools to help students integrate into society.”

“Schools have to produce a better product.”

This metaphor emphasizes efficiency, standardization and measurable products.

In an interview, Santa Ana suggested that journalists alert ourselves to the metaphors our sources apply and the ones we find ourselves using.

By choosing factory, river or path, we frame approaches to education and its purposes in a limited way. We may even unintentionally lay the groundwork for or against affirmative action, charter schools and bilingual education. If we vary the imagery we use for education, we also can open up the ways our audiences think about measuring it and improving it.

You may think Santa Ana is getting hung up on words, but we’re in an occupation that relies on them. We know they’re important, so why not play a little with the metaphors we apply? Why not think carefully about the meaning we embed in our choices?

In the spring, Santa Ana’s students analyzed the coverage of recent legislative proposals to manage immigration. As of May, journalists had shifted away from the mainly criminalizing and animal metaphors (murderer, felon, hunted, lured) used up until 2004. Instead we balanced humanizing (son, husband, self-reliant) and criminalizing ones.

As of May, “illegal alien” had nearly been abandoned. But one out of five stories the students reviewed in 2006 employed “illegal” immigrant or worker, compared with 1 of 50 that used “undocumented.” By choosing either “undocumented” or “illegal” as an adjective before a noun describing a person, Santa Ana says, we are taking a side.

“‘Undocumented’ is a euphemism,” Santa Ana told me, which deliberately overlooks the conscious entry into the United States by people who have broken a law. On the other hand, “illegal” turns the action of breaking the law into something innate.

Rather than modifying an activity, the adjective modifies the person — the immigrant. That person’s entry to the United States may be illegal, but that characterization doesn’t extend to his body.

Santa proposes what he sees as a more accurate term that doesn’t build in a point of view: an “unauthorized” immigrant. Or, he says, follow the Omaha World Herald’s example and use both. “If you choose just one at the expense of the other, you are taking a position,” he said.

We know some metaphors are political landmines, and we’re careful about approaching them. “Pro-choice” and “pro-life” represent clear political perspectives based on the metaphors they contain. Whether we agree with Santa Ana’s interpretations or not, whenever we approach a politically charged topic, why not study the imagery and meaning we use?



Sally Lehrman, SPJ diversity chairwoman, wrote News in a New America, a fresh look at achieving inclusion in the media. E-mail her with your questions or comments.

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