Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

October 11, 2013

When Reporting Breaking News, Words Matter – And Sometimes Languages, Too

Filed under: Media & Politics — Andy Carvin @ 3:28 pm

Have you ever paid close attention to the words used by journalists during breaking news?

You should. There’s actually a whole spectrum of words used to convey what they know or don’t know – and ideally, how they know it. Sometimes, the language is pretty obvious:

“We have confirmed that the cat was rescued from the tree.”

There’s that word: confirmed. It’s clear, direct. It tells us that a journo has enough evidence to say to us: this statement is true.

But there are other words and phrases that pepper the journalistic lexicon that may not seem so obvious to us, but in fact have a pretty clear meaning to the reporters saying them. Take the following example:

“We’re getting reports that the cat was rescued from the tree.”

When you hear that phrase, “We’re getting reports,” or some variant of it, it should tell you that the information being conveyed to you is very preliminary – so much so that you probably should take it with a grain of salt until further details are available.

Even the same word, used in a grammatically different way, can suggest further nuance. Let’s change that sentence just a little bit to this:

“The cat has reportedly been rescued from the tree.”

In this example, they’re still using a form of the word report, but by changing it from a plural noun to an adverb, it conveys that the journalist has more confidence that the story is in fact true. If you remove that one word, the sentence would be a statement of fact. Insert reportedly back into the sentence, and it shows that you’re still hedging your bets, just in case.

A little further along the news confirmation spectrum, you’ve got other options like this:

“It appears the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

By prefacing the claim with the phrase it appears, the journalist is still hedging their bets, but on the whole they want to convey it’s very likely to be true. Alternatively, you could use the phrase it seems and probably get away with conveying a similar level of confidence, though perhaps a little less so.

If you want to convey even more confidence, but still cover your ass somewhat, you can always modify the sentence by deflecting responsibility to someone else: a source.

“Sources tell us that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

Sources are a big deal, because they help journalists triangulate information to get to the facts. They even have their own sub-spectrum of confidence level. Compare how different these sentences sound:

“An anonymous source tells us that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

“Multiple independent sources in law enforcement, the fire department and the intelligence community tell us that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

In the first example, you have a sole source that clearly doesn’t want to be identified in any fashion. That’s an okay starting point to begin your reporting, but it’s pretty weak if that’s what you decide to run with when going public with the story. For anything of particular importance, one source is rarely enough. In the second example, by making it clear that you’ve talked to multiple sources who are okay with qualifying what type of source they are and how they got their info, you’ll inspire more confidence than relying on just a single anonymous source.

Then there’s the phrase that’s probably most coveted by journalists:

“We have learned that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

While the sentence doesn’t use that most absolute of journalistic terms – confirmed – it conveys that not only something has been confirmed, but that news org is the first to report it. In other words, it’s a scoop.

This spectrum of words and phrases constitute an area of linguistics known as evidentiality, which explores how evidence is conveyed in a language, including the nature of that evidence. In English, journalists use those words and phrases to convey what they know and how they know it, but because we don’t always think about their meaning, we often miss their intended nuance. And nuance is a big deal when you’re trying to say whether or not something is indeed true, especially if you plan to retweet it or share it in some fashion.

English could actually stand to learn from other languages that have evidentiality baked into the essence of their grammar. A number of indigenous languages are actually really good at doing this. Take, for example, Makah, spoken as a second language by a tribe on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. (Alas, the last fluent native speaker of Makah passed away in 2002.)  They actually have suffixes you can add to a verb to change the word and convey how you know something may be true.

If you use the Makah suffix -wa·t, for example, it tells you that something is hearsay, like “I hear the cat has been rescued from the tree.” Another suffix, -x̌a·-š, is used to infer probability, as in, “It’s probable that the cat has been rescued from the tree. Other suffixes convey visual evidence, including whether it’s unclear (“It looks like the cat has been rescued from the tree”) or if there’s enough physical evidence to infer that it’s true (“I see that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”) There’s even a suffix that conveys auditory evidence: “I heard the cat has been rescued from the tree” – perhaps, let’s say, because the speaker heard the owner of the cat express thanks to the rescuers.

Other languages also convey some form of evidentiality. In Eastern Pomo, a Native American language spoken in Lake County, CA, you can add a suffix to a verb to say that you actually felt something. For example, perhaps the speaker knows the cat was rescued because he or she got scratched by it afterwards. In the Yukaghir languages of the Russian Far East, they can modify their verbs to convey whether or not they witnessed something with their own eyes. In Brazil and Peru, the Shipibo people are able to put a modifier into the middle of a verb to demonstrate that the statement they’re making is a direct quote from someone (“The fireman said, ‘The cat has been rescued from the tree.’”)

The more you dig, the more examples of evidentiality you find in many indigenous languages. By baking evidence and verification directly into their grammar, they can convey information in a much more direct, confident way – something that English otherwise handles relatively clumsily. Alas, many of the languages that are best at this are also among the most threatened languages in the world, which is a real shame – and not just because entire cultures are lost when languages die. It’s also because they demonstrate that some cultures consider the conveyance of facts so important, their languages have evolved to allow for an incredible range of ways to qualify the evidence as specifically as possible. Imagine if we had common verb endings in English that were so clear in meaning and intent that anyone hearing them would know exactly what level of confidence you have when reporting something?

We probably shouldn’t hold our breath, of course. The next best thing we can do, perhaps, is to become better listeners to the words used by journalists and understand their nuance. Unless we can get journalists to provide more context about what they know or don’t know, we’ll have to live with the fact that breaking news reporting embraces high levels of nuance – and that it’s up to us to sort out what it all means.

Special thanks to my NPR colleague Jeremy Bowers for introducing me to the Makah language.

2 Comments »

  1. Nicely put Andy. I’ll share this with my
    Fundamentals of Journalism Writing
    class.

    Comment by Jeffrey Dvorkin — October 14, 2013 @ 9:36 am

  2. Thanks, Jeffrey, I appreciate it. Hope you’re well…

    Comment by Andy Carvin — October 14, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

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