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Why choice of words is so important in news

When the health secretary, Victoria Atkins, described 'junior doctors' that work in the NHS as “doctors in training” it caused quite the stir. Not only did it show she needed to understand her ministerial portfolio better, but it also underlined how language shapes what we think. The word 'junior' does imply someone young, someone in training or at least working towards a higher role. But some doctors remain 'junior' for their whole career and don't become consultants.

Being a pedant as a journalist is a good thing. But sometimes you can be too strict with it. 'Junior doctors' is technically correct and what the profession calls them. But even people in the NHS agree it is a little misleading. So why do news reports have to call them junior doctors? There is no 'rule' to say that. Could we say '(some) hospital doctors'? But in news we don't like adding unnecessary words and we like to be correct.

However, there are lots of examples of being technically correct that could be described as misleading or unnecessary. When covering stories about Royal Marines, you are told not to call them 'soldiers' because they are in the Royal Navy and soldiers are in the Army. But to anyone outside the military does it matter? With international news and language, often we want to be precise but it can lead to confusion. Olaf Scholz is the German Chancellor, but in the UK chancellor means in charge of the treasury. So on UK news do we refer to the 'exact' title or should we keep it simple and just say 'leader'?

The words and language we use in news is important as it often makes a subtle difference to how we perceive the story. This is why words need to be carefully chosen. The key thing in news is that we are clear with language and do not use words that are misleading or have connotations that might indicate opinion. As recently as January 6th I read an article in The Times of London talking about people who 'committed suicide'. But this reflects a time when it was a crime or a sin to take your own life. The legal system has changed and so the language we use should also do so.

That is an example of an outdated phrase remaining in the news lexicon but there are also times when language steers towards bias, intentionally or unintentionally. For a long time in the run up to Brexit finally being agreed, Sky News would often provide radio scripts with the phrase 'crash out of the EU'. It was like describing a football team 'crashing out of the FA Cup'. The suggestion was that if a deal was not agreed with Brussels there would be some sort of failure; something negative. That was never fact and only opinion. It was poor news writing and editorialising.

A regular example in the last year is the use of the word 'hike' by almost every news organisation when discussing 'interest rates'. A hike is a sharp and unexpected rise. But strictly speaking, it is wrong to suggest the last few rises in rates were hikes. They were neither unexpected nor particularly large. And of course, when rates get cut by the same amount as the previous rise, they are never described as being 'slashed', which you might argue is the opposite.

Staying with rates. You can also be pedantic here with the term 'interest rates', because when the Federal Reserve or Bank of England announce a change, they are only altering the 'base rate'. It is for your lender to decide if its rates change. But if we got the exact language needed, saying the base rate of interest (or perhaps 'cost of borrowing') you might argue people would be a bit confused. Here being precise adds to the confusion and does not help with clarity.

This underlines how language and the placement of words is so important in news because it affects how we perceive a person, story or situation. Using the word 'hike' is firstly lazy, but secondly possibly misleading. I think it shows how news often tries to sensationalize and prefers to emphasise the negative. That is why a rise in rates is always a hike and a cut is always just a cut.

This deeper problem of journalists being attracted to, or even looking for, the negative is something that needs to be challenged. It not only distorts how people are told a story but adds to the increasing view from consumers that news is always bleak. Research shows more and more people are avoiding news for that reason. Whilst the use of junior doctors and hike are misleading for different reasons, they are part of the same problem. Journalists writing without thinking about what they are saying. It becomes so automatic that you don't consider the implications. Next time you write 'hike’ or 'junior doctors' maybe ask yourself if there is a better and clearer way to tell the story.


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