Student guest post: Language and perception in coverage of Paris march

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Jordan Bailey is a senior majoring in journalism and anthropology. She is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She enjoys studying the effects of media and is particularly interested in how minority groups are portrayed in the mainstream media. Other interests include traveling, writing, reading, cooking and eating.

As a student of both anthropology and journalism, I am interested in how language and word choice work together to affect how a story is received by its readers.

A reader’s reaction to a news event is likely to be heavily influenced by how that story is presented to them. The use of certain words and phrases typically triggers specific reactions by readers, and those reactions will vary depending on the language used. This is why it is imperative that journalists are conscious of the language choices they make.

In order to illustrate this point, I will compare aspects of two news stories — both of which cover the march in Paris that took place on Jan. 11 in response to the attack on the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. One article is from The New York Times, and the other appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

In the first paragraph of The New York Times article, the march is described as “the most striking show of solidarity in the West against the threat of Islamic extremism since the Sept. 11 attacks.” By immediately connecting the Paris attacks to Islamic extremism and the events of Sept. 11, the article is priming the reader to think negatively about the Islamic faith.

In contrast, The Wall Street Journal calls the march a “display of unity against the terror attacks that tore through (France’s) capital.” By not instantly identifying the attacks as an act of Islamic extremism, The Wall Street Journal shifts the focus from the faith of the attackers to the individual instance of tragedy that inspired the march.

The two articles also differ in how they describe the U.S. participation in the event. More than 40 presidents and prime ministers from around the globe joined the marchers in Paris.

However, neither President Barack Obama nor any other top U.S. official was present. To relay this information, The New York Times states: “Mr. Holder did not participate in the rally and march; the United States was represented by its ambassador to France, Jane D. Hartley.” The Wall Street Journal writes: “Neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden made the trip. But on the sidelines of Sunday’s rally, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve convened a meeting of senior security officials from both sides of the Atlantic, including Attorney General Eric Holder to address terror threats.”

It is interesting to note that The Wall Street Journal explicitly mentions the absence of Obama and Biden, while The New York Times does not. Highlighting their lack of attendance might cause readers to think more critically about the U.S. participation, while The New York Times article likely would not.

Language is powerful in that it can both foreground and background certain elements of a story. Influencing the way a reader is likely to perceive the event. I feel that editors should strive to be conscious of this and work to eradicate language that compromises the neutrality of the story.