Dealing with Inflammatory Statements

November 02, 2007

Journalist Roy Peter Clark has a good column at the Poynter Institute. It is entitled "Covering 'Fascist' America: What's the role of journalism in the face of inflammatory claims?" Towards the end of it he offers some good advice for how to deal with inflammatory statements. Here are a couple of highlights:

1. Be skeptical of all claims that the sky is falling. Ground yourself in American history so that you can compare and contrast your own times to other troubled times, such as the Civil War, the Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Civil Rights era, and Watergate.

2. Challenge any language and assertions that are fraught with emotional and historical weight. (One morning many years ago on NBC's "Today" show, a celebrity guest kept calling The New York Times "Pravda," and host Edwin Newman showed him the door.)

3. Challenge any language that sounds like a slogan: right to life, right to choose, cut and run, mission accomplished, freedom on the march.

4. Analyze political language as part of your reporting process. This is one of the strategies that make "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" so popular and persuasive. They pay close attention to the language of public figures, and, through satire and humor, reveal the "truthiness" of it.

5. Learn the complex relationship between political corruption and language abuse by reading "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell.

6. Give special weight to sources and analysts who do not adhere slavishly to a particular ideology. Look for the long time member of the NRA who favors some restrictions on gun ownership. Look for the feminist who is troubled by some of the consequences of legal abortion. People willing to reflect upon and question some of their own normal affinities can offer powerful testimony.

7. Do not just quote political metaphors and analogies, but test them. Is Iraq another Vietnam? Would leaving Iraq be akin to Chamberlain's accommodations to Hitler through the Munich Pact?
That is excellent advice for us to consider. Hopefully, we as Christians can follow through on his points and help reduce--rather than add to--the level and frequency of inflammatory comments in society.