How the Media Uses Language to Manipulate You
I grew up in a town where English was a subject that was looked down on. How could you possibly need to study English any more when you already know how to read and write? What’s the point in studying plays and poetry and language acquisition? The point is because the more you know about language, the more immune you become to its effects.
Language is an incredible tool and like any great power, can be used for good and evil. What’s important is how you use it. How you say something is often more important than what you actually mean.
Take the following clip from Russell Howard’s Good News. It shows the difference between Ebola coverage in the US and the UK.
Crazy, isn’t it? The difference in the language between the two sets of coverage. Thanks to these very different styles of reporting, the reactions have been very different. In the UK, everyone is as laid back as ever. In the US, African teenagers have been beaten up at school and called ‘Ebola’.
The language that the Americans use is the equivalent of what tabloids do to scaremonger and sensationalise. It’s what parents do to small children to get them to stay in bed: ‘Don’t get out of bed, or the boogey man will get you!’
On the other hand, the Brits may as well be lying back with a gin and tonic on the beach. The Brits are doing what any good journalist should do: be impartial.
Facts vs. Sensationalism
Most journalists and news outlets don’t do this, though. They all have their opinions and affiliations, and it’s those opinions and affiliations that sell papers. You have your ‘Everyone is out to get us!’ papers like the Daily Mail, your left-wing papers like The Guardian and right-wing papers like The Times. They all have their target audiences and they appeal to them using the appropriate language. Take these headlines, about a statement a French politician made about foreigners entering the UK:
The Guardian focuses on the facts. The Guardian looks at the extremes people are willing to go to in order to survive. It appeals to our humanity.
The Daily Mail, on the other hand, focuses on something that will get its readers to click on the article: the abuse of benefits by those that aren’t born in the UK. The Guardian also refers to them as ‘migrants’ as opposed to ‘immigrants’. A two letter difference that doesn’t have a huge difference in its actual meaning:
See? Not a huge difference. Until you look into the way that each word is used. ‘Immigrants’ have a hugely negative connotation and have for a long time. UKIP are using them to their advantage and scaremongering citizens against people moving to live in the UK. Using the word ‘immigrant’ and the quote about the ‘huge amount’ of benefits that the UK apparently hands out immediately provokes a negative reaction. It gets the UKIP fans waving their British flag in the name of ‘patriotism’ and demanding to know why we’re so welcoming to these subhumans taking away from the UK’s benefits system.
‘Migrants’ meanwhile, is a more impartial word with less negative connotations, and that specifically mentions finding work in its definition.
The phrase ‘handed out’ from the Daily Mail headline also makes the process seem easy, like we’re willing to give just anyone some benefits so long as they’re on our soil. (I would just like to quickly mention this isn’t the case, but I don’t want to get too much into the politics of it all.) This is a more colloquial way of saying ‘given’.
Similes and Metaphors
We were all taught about similes and metaphors at school: figurative language that allows us to not only read about something, but to help create a picture in our head. For example, the phrase ‘her eyes were blue’ is very plain and to-the-point. ‘Her eyes were as bright as stars’ makes them seem bright, welcoming, sparkling. ‘She had stars for eyes’ is much more vivid, even though technically it says the same thing.
Metaphors offer much more vivid imagery because they say something is something else. When you declare that something is something else, not just like it, it shows a strength in your conviction and a confidence in what you’re saying.
That being said, metaphors are much more difficult (in my opinion) to come up with. All things come with practise, though.
Friend vs. Foe
The way that a media outlet writes and manipulates us can have an impact not only on us, but on them, too.
In 2010, notorious blogger Perez Hilton came under fire for creating an anti-bullying video for the It Gets Better campaign. He was called a hypocrite because he was telling people it was ok to be homosexual and to not let the bullies get to you, yet what he was doing to celebrities was bullying them (he even ‘outs’ celebrities that he believes to be gay, and was part of the reasons behind Neil Patrick Harris and Lance Bass coming out).
He also used to refer to Jennifer Anistion as MANiston. Referring to her as such is not only hugely sexist, but it informs visitors to his blog that a) he doesn’t like her, that b) she looks like a man (news to me), and that she’s butch somehow. The name is offensive on so many levels, and completely unnecessary.
He’s since apologised and changed his ways. Mostly.
The only reason he did, though, was because several celebrities, other bloggers and readers called him up on it. When he posted Jennifer Lawrence’s leaked nude photos, she called him up on it. He apologised (again), but he clearly still makes it up as he goes along, based on what he feels is appropriate.
He uses a light, chatty style on his blog that many celebrity/gossip magazines and blogs adopt. It makes it feel like you’re just chatting to a friend over coffee, except that there’s much more likely to be a backlash over what’s been said.
HelloGiggles, meanwhile, is constantly applauded for its positivity. It promotes equality, diversity, happiness, and cute, furry animals. The biggest backlash HelloGiggles has faced has been anti-feminist comments that it chooses to ignore. It encourages open and honest conversations in its comments and social media pages, and also invites its readers to write for it.
The media uses language to manipulate us in ways we don’t always notice. Small changes in wording can make a huge difference to how someone perceives an article and whom it will reach. Imagery can also create a greater picture in our heads, allowing us to relate to the article more.
What are your favourite examples of how the media tries to manipulate us? Do you think some media outlets are worse for it than others?