What’s in a word? Or a phrase? A lot. Take a quick scan of your social media or news feed and it’s clear that words matter. They can affect our actions and how we feel.
The debate over the environment and climate change can be especially heated.
The British newspaper the Guardian triggered a discussion recently after it announced changes to the way it describes climate change in its reporting. The nearly 200-year-old publication updated its style guide, and now refers to what’s happening to our planet as a “crisis.”
“‘Climate change’ is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the situation; use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead,” reads the updated guide.
The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, explained that it was also time to do away with such niceties as “global warming,” which is being replaced, in most instances, with “global heating.”
“We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue,” said Viner. “The phrase ‘climate change,’ for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”
It’s something Sean Holman, a Calgary journalism professor, has been thinking about for a while. He wrote an open letter to editors and journalism associations chiding reporters for failing to properly report on the “crisis” shortly after the Guardian made the change.
“This letter is aimed at basically us, you and me, journalists across the country whose job it is to provide the public with the truth more than anything else,” said Holman. “We know that climate change, the climate crisis, is causing a lot of what we are seeing now and we need to be clearer with our audiences about that, because, really, no one else will.”
The Guardian’s move prompted some discussion at the CBC, and an eventual decision to clarify the public broadcaster’s language on the issue. The public broadcaster said use of the words “crisis” and “emergency” may be used “sometimes,” but caution needs to be exercised.
“We never suggested that anyone shouldn’t use the words, but we never really articulated their use,” said Paul Hambleton, the CBC’s director of journalistic standards.
“The ‘climate crisis’ and ‘climate emergency’ are words that have a whiff of advocacy to them,” he said. “They sort of imply, you know, something more serious. Where climate change and global warming are more neutral terms.”
Hambleton said the public broadcaster needs to “guard against our reporting in our journalism that crosses into advocacy.”
Tell it like it is
While journalists may open themselves up to criticism, one Calgary communications expert believes there is room to use a bit more aggressive language when reporting on the environment.
“It can’t be business as usual,” said David Taras, a communications studies professor at Mount Royal University. “Journalists have misrepresented the crisis in a lot of ways. And journalism has to change, and it has to change because the reality is changing.”
Taras said that journalists need to report “the facts as they really are,” but they also have an “obligation” to “make their audiences understand that … we are in a global emergency.”
He said news organizations should be open and transparent with their audiences, similar to the Guardian.
“The question is whether journalists will form their judgments and frame their stories in accordance with scientific facts.” he said. “This is the only question that really matters.”
Chris Westbury, a research psychologist whose work focuses on understanding the cognitive structure and neurological underpinnings of language, said changing the words used to describe climate change could impact the way we think about the issue.
The University of Alberta researcher likened it to a U.S. study done in the 1970s that asked people to look at car crash footage and estimate the speed of the vehicles involved in the collision. The speed estimates changed based on the language researchers used to describe the crash. “Collide,” “bump,” “contact” or “hit” resulted in lower speed estimates, while the verb “smash” resulted in higher estimates.
Westbury said there could be a similar reaction to the way climate change is described.
“What I would suspect is that if we all started using more negative terms, then we would all start thinking about climate change more negatively, and presumably that would make us do something about it,” he said.
Language shapes our emotions
University of Calgary cultural studies expert Jan Suselbeck believes the emotions we feel, such as anger, happiness and sadness, are “constructed,” or triggered in the moment, and are not biologically hardwired in our brains. He said the language we use constructs or shapes those emotions.
“Language influences how we feel, so if we change the terms we use about certain things, this makes an emotion appear or vanish,” he said. “This is why language matters.”
Suselbeck supports the Guardian’s move, and suggests other news organizations follow its lead. But he said journalists should still provide facts and context when presenting information on the state of the environment.
“People must realize that this is indeed connected to scientific findings,” he said. “It’s not just a random thing, so these data have to be used.”
While U.S. President Donald Trump is one of the biggest climate change skeptics, Suselbeck said journalism organizations might learn something from his political style — namely, the power of repetition.
Most of us have heard Trump’s repeated assertions over allegations that his campaign conspired with Russia in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. He has tweeted or uttered the phrase “no collusion, no obstruction” hundreds of times.
Suselbeck said repeating the same messages over and over again makes people focus on those statements, “and this shifts the public perception of what really matters or not.”