Sunday, April 22, 2007

At the language lesson

Here's a really nice piece of journalism with one passage that just sort of yanks the old chain. It doesn't ruin the article, but it does make one wish some copy editor had ignored all the prestige issues involved and stood up to complain. Since it'll crop up again soon somewhere in the editing world, let's talk about the phenomenon of deixis for a bit.

Deixis is a property of language that talks about stuff as it stands in relation to other stuff, and deictic language is language in which that property is front and center -- language that points. Think of the difference between "turn north at the milestone marked 3" and "turn left there": You have to know which way you're going to get the right result from "left," and you have to know where here is to understand where "there" is.

On its own, it's pretty innocent. It can be good (make your hymns sound hymnlike with Deixis®!) or less good (as in most sets of instructions). But like most things in this sad world, it's subject to manipulative uses. The biggest worry for journalists is "empathetic deixis," which usually seeks to orient the speaker/writer toward something the audience favors. Think of the difference between "William Boot, with U.S. troops in Ishmaelia" and "William Boot, with our troops in the War on Terror." You can't tell what "our" means unless you know what "we" means -- or in many cases, what it doesn't mean.

Hence the issue with the abovementioned delightful piece of reporting and advocacy (don't mistake it for "objective"; it ain't) in today's Times magazine. Here's a taste:

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.

Help yourself to more; it's informative, snarky and slightly outraged (and with all due respect to our pals who've been blogging at TCE from the Miami conference, strong evidence that education is actually a good thing for journalism). There's just this one annoying bit:

... most of us assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about “farming,” an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know and in which few of us think we have a stake. This leaves our own representatives free to ignore the farm bill, to treat it as a parochial piece of legislation affecting a handful of their Midwestern colleagues. Since we aren’t paying attention, they pay no political price for trading, or even selling, their farm-bill votes.

Pretty clear who the Times Magazine thinks is in the audience, huh? Because if you're stuck in the Midwest, it sure as hell isn't you. "Our" representatives can ignore it, because the hicks are the only ones that care.

Kind of an unfortunate set of writing choices for somebody who holds an endowed chair at a J-school. (And from deep in the central time zone, one is tempted to mutter: Hmm. Berkeley. New York. Not exactly hotbeds of journalism education, are they? Wonder if it's the shortage of corn and soy.) And if some poor copyed looked at the byline and decided this one wasn't worth a fight, that's a pity.

Well, enough of that. Empathetic deixis isn't what they'll be talking about tomorrow if the article should surface over at Nutrition Sciences. But it's worth bringing the matter up when some writer is tempted to indulge in the first person plural: When you make clear who "we" are, you also make abundantly clear who "they" are. And they might not appreciate it.


Anonymous l said...

That's a sharp light on one of the reasons many people think the Times is written and readen by a bunch of snooty, better-than-thou elitists. Most readers aren't going to notice it, because it's a wonderful way to drag people into the tent where "we all think like this." But the people truly affected by the farm bill, say Messrs. Archer, Daniels and Midland, will see it and they'll be peeved. And they'll discuss the Times and the Times reporter in rather unflattering terms and they won't feel well-disposed toward either one. And while neither they nor their spokespersons are likely to really see the reason they feel like they've been elbowed.

Not a deadly thing, but it's not the first group to get that short, sharp little jab in the ribs. The editors who handled that piece probably saw that as a gem graf, and they might have even sharpened the exclusive and inclusive language.

You aren't likely to get a lot of agreeing posts on this, because of the general attitude about processed food and congressional pork and mega farmers and the belief that it's a bad lot, so anything that crowd gets is its just deserts.

8:31 AM, April 23, 2007  

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