General semantics and media ethics.THIS TALK is based on a chapter in Journalism Ethics: Philosophical Foundations for News Media (1997), John C. Merrill's comprehensive and well-written book on journalism morality. The title of the chapter is "Korzybski to the Rescue."
In the early part of the twentieth century, Alfred Korzybski Noun 1. Alfred Korzybski - United States semanticist (born in Poland) (1879-1950)
Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski, Korzybski , a Polish polymath pol·y·math
A person of great or varied learning.
[Greek polumath 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 gen·er·al semantics
n. (used with a sing. verb)
A discipline developed by Alfred Korzybski that proposes to improve human behavioral responses through a more critical use of words and symbols. " (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 so·phis·ti·cate
v. so·phis·ti·cat·ed, so·phis·ti·cat·ing, so·phis·ti·cates
1. To cause to become less natural, especially to make less naive and more worldly.
2. , instill in·still
To pour in drop by drop.
instil·lation n. in them a recognition of the weaknesses and the power of words, and generally help them overcome the enslaving tendencies of language." (1) In this talk, I will examine eleven basic ideas of general semantics and four GS observations that led Merrill to his aforementioned conclusions.
I. Eleven Basic GS Ideas and their Relevance to Journalism and 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 the "real" flower 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 those which express abstract ideas, as beauty, whiteness, roundness, without regarding any object in which they exist; or abstract terms are the names of orders, genera or species of things, in which there is a combination of similar qualities.
See also: Abstract 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 ETC - ExTendible Compiler. Fortran-like, macro extendible. "ETC - An Extendible Macro-Based Compiler", B.N. Dickman, Proc SJCC 38 (1971). , 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.
Make clear distinctions: reports, inferences, and judgments: Reports are based on observable data and verifiable. Bill Smith, age twenty-five, was sentenced last week to fifteen years in prison. Inferences are assumptions made from known data. Bill Smith will soon be in prison. Judgments are conclusions made from inferences. A judgment: Bill Smith is an evil and dangerous individual. Journalists frequently confuse or mix reports, inferences, and judgments, which is unfortunate, as flawed inferences or flawed judgments can have a negative impact on "objective reporting."
Recognition of non-allness: One can never completely describe anything. Certain characteristics are always left out. For example, a report may say, "He is a New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of attorney." But he is a great deal more (a husband, a Baptist, an alcoholic, an ex-military man, etc.). Journalists, when using language, must leave out much significant information. Ethical reporters (ethical in the sense of dedicated to "truthful, accurate, and objective reporting") must avoid intentionally biasing their story by what is omitted, and they should be aware of the omissions.
Delay your reaction: A hunter lived with an infant in a cabin, guarded by his dog. One day the hunter returned from the fields and saw the cradle overturned and the baby nowhere in sight. The room was a mess. The dog had blood all over his muzzle muzzle
1. the part of the face supported by the maxillae and nasal bones; the part of a dog's head anterior to the stop and cheeks, containing the nasal passages and bearing the nosepad. Longer in dolichocephalics and practically nonexistent in brachycephalics. . The hunter, enraged en·rage
tr.v. en·raged, en·rag·ing, en·rag·es
To put into a rage; infuriate.
[Middle English *enragen, from Old French enrager : en-, causative pref. , shot the dog. He then found the baby, unharmed under the bed, and a dead wolf in the corner.
Uncritical assumptions can result in negative consequences. Ethical journalists understand this and so, following the general semantics recommendation to delay one's reaction to more accurately assess what is going on, they do not precipitously pre·cip·i·tous
1. Resembling a precipice; extremely steep. See Synonyms at steep1.
2. Having several precipices: a precipitous bluff.
3. rush when gathering facts for a story. Unlike many of us, such reporters do not take for granted the human ability to delay one's reaction. They know the capacity to delay reacting, and bring our higher brain functions into play, is a key characteristic that distinguishes our species from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Reality is dynamic: The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously fa·mous·ly
1. In a way or to an extent that is well known: "his famously neurotic mannerisms [are] lampooned in the novels of Evelyn Waugh" said that one can not step in the same river twice. What he meant by this is that life is perpetually in flux, people and situations are constantly shifting. While language may impose, as Nietzsche suggested, a "stabilizing fiction" on events that transpire in our restless universe, the fact is change is ever present. Because reality is dynamic, ethical reporters will not use an old quotation, as if it were currently valid, to give someone's views on a subject nor will they automatically assume that the views individuals hold today are the same they espoused thirty years ago.
Perso[n.sub.1] is not Perso[n.sub.2]: The eminent general semanticist se·man·ti·cist
A specialist in semantics.
Noun 1. semanticist - a specialist in the study of meaning
linguist, linguistic scientist - a specialist in linguistics Irving J. Lee asserted that we tend to discriminate against people to the degree that we fail to distinguish among them. Indexing, a GS tool that involves using mathematical subscripts to break down larger categories into their component parts, is an effective technique for addressing Lee's concern (e.g., Personl is not Person2, is not Person3, is not Person4). The use of indexing can remind journalists that members of the same group are not the same and that it is dangerous to make assumptions about them because of their nationality, race, religion, party, or other characteristics.
Multivalued orientation: Aristotle's law of the excluded middle (A thing is either "A" or "not A") encourages us to think that every question can be answered in terms of "either-or." The structure of the English language English language, member of the West Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages). Spoken by about 470 million people throughout the world, English is the official language of about 45 nations. also pushes us in that direction. With its many polarizing terms (good/bad, tall/short, liberal/conservative, etc.), English supports reasoning through extremes rather than with gradations.
General semantics notes that either-or thinking keeps us from seeing the great diversity in the world. For example, rather than being tall or short, or liberal or conservative, most people fall "height wise" and politically somewhere along a continuum. Ethical reporters are mindful that accurate descriptions of people and events involve more than just assigning them to one of two dichotomous di·chot·o·mous
1. Divided or dividing into two parts or classifications.
2. Characterized by dichotomy.
Beware the "is" of projection: "She's a knockout." "That painting is not art." "King Kong King Kong
giant ape brought to New York as “eighth wonder of world.” [Am. Cinema: Payton, 367]
See : Giantism was a great movie." When individuals make statements like these they tell us precious little about what they are describing. Instead, they say something about themselves. They are projecting their ideas of what they consider to be "beautiful," "art," and "outstanding cinema." They are confusing opinions with facts.
To demonstrate awareness that our thoughts or comments are products of our internal condition, rather than reports of external "reality," general semantics advocates the use of qualifying expressions like "it seems to me," "as I see it," "apparently," "from my point of view," etc. These phrases signal to others that we are transmitting personal observations about reality, not divine truths.
The "meaning" of words: What's the difference between a "freedom fighter" and a "terrorist"? Were the victims at the Abu Ghraib prison The Abu Ghraib prison (Arabic: سجن أبو غريب; also Abu Ghurayb) is in Abu Ghraib, an Iraqi city 32 km (20 mi) west of Baghdad. in Iraq subjected to "abuse" or "torture"? Are organizations that comment on news reporting "media watchdog groups," or are they "pressure groups"? Don't look to the dictionary to answer these questions. Their answers depend on how people perceive things.
General semantics observes that strictly speaking Adv. 1. strictly speaking - in actual fact; "properly speaking, they are not husband and wife"
properly speaking, to be precise , words don't "mean;" people do. The physicist P. W. Bridgman put it this way, "Never ask 'What does word X mean?' but ask instead, 'What do I mean when I say word X?' or 'What do you mean when you say word X?'" (3) Words do not have "one true meaning." For the 500 most used words in the English language, the Oxford Dictionary lists 14,070 meanings. (4) Ethical journalists understand that conveying meaning is a complex and tricky matter, and that possibilities for confusion are a constant threat.
Natural penchant for partiality: General semantics recognizes that there is a tendency for individuals to select (or abstract) from reality those portions that are consistent with personal values. In reporting a story a newsperson may choose what is appealing, what coincides with preferences, what gives pleasure. Ethical journalists guard against such egotistical inclinations and are able to force themselves to include information in stories that is uncongenial to them and with which they disagree.
II. Some GS Observations on Media Bias, Abstracting, Presentation, and Perception
In his book Language in Thought and Action, the general semanticist S. I. Hayakawa Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa (July 18 1906 – February 27 1992) was a Canadian-born American academic and political figure. He was an English professor, served as president of San Francisco State University and then a United States Senator from California from 1977 to 1983. points out that when a newspaper carries a story we don't like, omitting facts we think important and emphasizing certain facts we consider unfair, we are tempted to berate the paper for slanting slant
v. slant·ed, slant·ing, slants
1. To give a direction other than perpendicular or horizontal to; make diagonal; cause to slope: the story. (5) But, he argues, we assume what seems important or unimportant to us would seem equally important or unimportant to the journalists. We make an inference about the writer of the story or about the editors. The assumption of bias leads us to believe that the editors purposely pur·pose·ly
With specific purpose.
USAGE: See at purposeful.
Adv. 1. made the story misleading. Such an inference, according to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.
2. In keeping with: according to instructions.
3. Hayakawa, is not rational. It may well be that our (the readers') bias is the problem in that the process of selection and abstraction imposed on us by our own interests and background is already slanted slant
v. slant·ed, slant·ing, slants
1. To give a direction other than perpendicular or horizontal to; make diagonal; cause to slope: .
Yet there are cases when journalists deliberately slant stories. When they do this they are not giving us "good" maps of the territory--too much will be left out, and the map will tend to be one-dimensional and misleading. Ethical journalists will look at the same subject from many perspectives and will, therefore, be in a better position to draw for the reader a good map, one that is reliable.
Stuart Chase Stuart Chase (1888-1985) Born in Somersworth, New Hampshire was an American economist and engineer trained at MIT. His writings covered topics as diverse as General Semantics and physical economy. , the author of the GS-popularization The Tyranny of Words, suggests that in analyzing verbal passages we try to identify abstract words and phrases Words and Phrases®
A multivolume set of law books published by West Group containing thousands of judicial definitions of words and phrases, arranged alphabetically, from 1658 to the present. that don't have discoverable referents--and substitute a blab for every meaningless term. (6) He calls the blab a "semantics blank" where nothing of significance comes through. Journalists who use a high degree of "blab" language communicate very little.
One may take any newspaper or periodical periodical, a publication that is issued regularly. It is distinguished from the newspaper in format in that its pages are smaller and are usually bound, and it is published at weekly, monthly, quarterly, or other intervals, rather than daily. and scrutinize scru·ti·nize
tr.v. scru·ti·nized, scru·ti·niz·ing, scru·ti·niz·es
To examine or observe with great care; inspect critically.
scru a story for blab language. Merrill offers this hypothetical sentence for such analysis. "The American society today, steeped as it is in multicultural sham False; without substance.
A sham Pleading is one that is good in form but is so clearly false in fact that it does not raise any genuine issue. , has retreated into a dark abyss where every kind of verbal description is tinged with implied prejudice and other demeaning de·mean 1
tr.v. de·meaned, de·mean·ing, de·means
To conduct or behave (oneself) in a particular manner: demeaned themselves well in class. implications." (7) Translated into blab, this sentence would read: The blab blab today blabbed as it is in blab blab, has retreated into a blab blab, where every kind of blab blab is tinged with blab blab and blab blab. Blabbing compromises truthful, accurate, and objective reporting.
Gregg Hoffmann, an award-winning journalist and the author of Mapping the Media--a media literacy Media literacy is the process of accessing, analyzing, evaluating and creating messages in a wide variety of media modes, genres and forms. It uses an inquiry-based instructional model that encourages people to ask questions about what they watch, see and read. guidebook based on general semantics formulations, notes that a news story goes through a process made necessary by the organization of media businesses. "Reporters collect information by observations in the field, or from secondary sources. They must then write or produce their story to a deadline, and fit it into a designated space in a newspaper, or a time limit for a newscast newscast
Radio or television broadcast of news events. News gathering and broadcasting by the radio networks began in the mid-1930s and increased significantly during World War II. The television newscast began in 1948 with 15-minute programs that resembled movie newsreels. . Editors may cut the length or time of the story. They will write a headline and may add photos or charts for a newspaper. They may include graphics and video for TV." (8) Ethical reporters and editors remain vigilant to not let the process of the news business interfere with the objective of presenting fair and balanced "Fair and Balanced" is a trademarked slogan used by American news broadcaster Fox News Channel. The slogan was originally used in conjunction with the phrase "Real Journalism. news stories.
General semantics recognizes that human perception is not a simple matter of stimulus-response (the human nervous systems is the essential intermediary) nor is it ever complete. In their article "Using General Semantics Principles in the Basic News Reporting Classroom," Russell and Many offer this example: Something that we would label "an event" occurs in the world.. Reporter #1 comes to it and perceives it, or parts of it, and this perception is different than that of reporter #2. What this signifies is that there will always be differences in reports of the "same" news events. (9) But, say Russell and Many, "If they (journalism students and reporters) can be taught their observations are by definition incomplete, perhaps they will learn to ask even more questions and search for more sources and vantage points before concluding they have observed and reported everything." (10)
I began this talk with John C. Merrill's assertion that 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. To conclude this talk I offer Merrill's observations on the benefits of GS training for journalists.
... most people hardly ever think about a Korzybskian emphasis. Therefore, they fall into poor language habits, that provide only a one-dimensional, inflexible world in which concepts are drawn in either-or terms and people and institutions are depicted as static, stereotyped entities. Most journalistic maps are poorly drawn; the lines are fuzzy and significant developments are left out. A new sensitivity to language coupled with a recognition of its potent impact on thinking and action, will enable journalists to be more ethical, to become more symbolically sophisticated, and to draw more progressively reliable maps of the complex and rugged territory of reality. (11)
1. John C. Merrill, Journalism Ethics: Philosophical Foundations for News Media (New York: St. Martin's St. Martin's or St. Martins may refer to:
2. Martin H. Levinson "Democracy Here is not Necessarily Democracy There" ETC, Vol. 63, No. 2 (April 2006), 216.
3. Kenneth G. Johnson, General Semantics: An Outline Survey, Third Revised Edition (Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics The Institute of General Semantics is a not-for-profit corporation established in 1938 by Alfred Korzybski, located in Fort Worth, Texas. Its membership roles include members from 30 different countries. , 2004), 21.
4. Ibid., 21.
5. S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, Fifth Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1990), 30.
6. Stuart Chase, The Tyranny of Words (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1938), 21.
7. Merrill, Journalism Ethics, 168.
8. Gregg Hoffmann and Paul D. Johnston, Mapping the Media: A Media Literacy Guidebook (Whitefish Bay Whitefish Bay, village (1990 pop. 14,272), Milwaukee co., SE Wis., a residential suburb of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan; inc. 1892. Tourists are attracted to recreation provided by the lake. , WI: M & T Communications, 1997), 16.
9. Charles G. Russell and Paul Many, "Using General Semantics Principles in the Basic News Reporting Classroom" ETC, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Fall 1993), 294.
10. Ibid., 294, 295.
11. Merrill, Journalism Ethics, 171, 172.
MARTIN H. LEVINSON, PH.D. *
* Martin H. Levinson brings over 30 years of experience in general semantics, counseling, administration, and education to his teaching, writing, and consulting work. He is the author of Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times and Practical Fairy Tales This is a list of fairy tales, the dates of their earliest known printed version, the author and, if known, the collection of tales in which it was published. It should be noted, however, that not all stories listed below would be categorized as fairy tales by a strict definition for Everyday Living.