Language Features in Verification

First: Factual Language

Language in the press--and we are discussing news here--has a specific function, which is conveying information. Unlike literary language, it does not aim at indulging the reader and producing an emotional effect on the receiver. It is "factual" language. In other words, it is practical language used to perform its functional role. To do this, it must fulfill two essential conditions: "Condensation," and the use of utterances and expressions, each of which has a specific meaning and is not subject to different interpretations, depending on the reader.

The first condition, "condensation," is achieved when a journalist avoids redundancy and verbosity, which result from repeating the same ideas in different expressions, and avoids excessive descriptions and use of literary images and devices. He uses just enough words to convey information and applies the golden rule that says "do not say in two words what you can say in one." But in doing so, a journalist is aware of the fact that "condensation" does not mean "flawed brevity." Rather, it means that a report must include all the basic information related to the event being covered, which is necessary for understanding it, without addition or deletion.

The second condition is the use of words that have specific meanings. On the one hand, these words are characterized by effectiveness, and thus they perform their function in delivering the intended meaning. On the other, they are not subject to different interpretations and readings.

In terms of the language of verification, the process of verification of the credibility of a certain piece of news results in passing judgment on it. This highlights the importance of choosing words that have specific definitions, which can fulfill the condition of accurately characterizing the credibility of the piece of news. This will be based on the following:

  1. Incorrect/erroneous [khati'] piece of news: If all the information contained in it is baseless.
  2. A piece of news that includes some incorrectness: It combines incorrect and correct information.
  3. Incomplete [naqis] piece of news: It overlooks key information, which is necessary for understanding it.
  4. Biased [munhaz] piece of news: It adopts, or is inclined toward, the viewpoint of one party to the story at the expense of another. There is no balance in the number of sources representing each party, or in the space allocated to each of them, or in both. Another indicator of the biased nature of a piece of news is the use of biased language, which will be explained when we discuss neutral language.
  5. Misleading [mudallil] piece of news: While taking into consideration the fact that any incorrect, biased, incomplete, etc. piece of news is, in effect, misleading, this description will be applied to a piece of news that contains correct information, but it is employed in the wrong context, an old piece of news published as new, or a piece of news whose writer has "manipulated" the chronological sequence of events. It will also be used to describe a headline that does not match the content of a piece of news.
  6. Vague [mubham] piece of news: It is a piece of news whose content is not understandable for the reader. This could be the result of disruption in the logical sequence of information or events contained in a news report or a problem with the expressions used, such as complication or twisting the rules of writing in a manner that affects meaning. Vagueness could also result from using expressions that are not understood by the public, either because they are strange and unfamiliar in daily life or because they are specialized terms and concepts. This is clear when covering economic, legal, and scientific affairs. 
  7. Inciting [tahridi] piece of news: The news material includes incitement, which evokes feelings of hate toward any group or segment in society on a religious, ethnic, sectarian, or political basis.

Second: Clear Language

When we say that the mission of the press is to report events, we must not ignore the fact that these events are oftentimes complex, meaning that they involve many parties and their details are tangled. While searching for information and following the right sources, a journalist must develop his story in a way that presents the details of the event in a logical and understandable context.

Therefore, it is the job of the journalist to disentangle the elements of the event and report it with the greatest measure of simplicity. This achieves the core role played by the press, which is to provide knowledge. This not only means the availability of information, but also--and this is more important--that this information is within a logical context.

This notion of simplification must reflect on the language. A journalist is not only addressing an elite group, but also people of different educational and cultural backgrounds who do not necessarily have the knowledge or linguistic skills that he or his sources have. This requires that the press language be simple; the pillar of this simplicity is clarity, which is achieved by avoiding long and convoluted sentences and uncommon words that are rarely used. Instead, he should depend on short sentences and everyday language. This, however, does not mean stooping toward poor phrasing or banality, or even using colloquial language without restrictions. Rather, it means that the journalist should avoid complicated and unfamiliar terms and use common terms that are frequently used. It also means minimizing, as much as possible, the use of specialized scientific and technical jargon, or using it while providing a simple explanation. These terms are often the key to a piece of news or report and the reader will not be able to understand the substance of the report without knowing what these terms mean. Such a piece of news, in a media outlet that addresses the public, will not achieve the aim of publishing it, which is supporting the right of people to have access to knowledge.  

Third: Neutral Language

We have already said that judging the credibility of a news report not only depends on the accuracy of the information it contains, but the manner in which this information is communicated. Using words that are rife with certain insinuations or phrasing words in a certain manner could place this information within a context of unjustified doubt.

For example, a journalist might attribute to the source what the latter exactly said, but he might preface the attribution with words like "claimed" or "alleged." These two words suggest doubt, which makes the reader question the statement of the source. On the other hand, when he uses words like "explained" or "declared" or "confirmed" (without being warranted by the context, as will be shown later), this will make the reader more inclined to believe what the source said.

In the two previous cases, the journalist reported the same information, but he intervened, by the manner in which he used the language, in how the reader received this information, and created, each time, a different basis for the reader to receive the news. This would not have happened had he used the verb "said," which is a neutral word.

In addition, some words imply a political, religious, or ethical position, while others have derogatory connotations toward some religious, ethnic, or social groups or specific segments of society, at a time when language has to reflect neutrality on the level of sex, religion, ethnicity, and culture. Some of these words are not inherently biased, but their overuse in certain contexts made them as such. For example, one of the dictionary meanings of the word "alleged" is "believed," but its use in the media is confined to the sense of casting doubt. Here, journalists are obliged to use words based on their familiar context in society and in the profession. They should also refer to different groups by the names that they themselves use.

The following are some "biased" words, with suggested alternatives to some of them. Here, we affirm that creating a list of non-neutral words does not mean that this list is inclusive. Usage and the type of context on many occasions take a word or expression from a state of neutrality to a contrary state.

There is a difference between using "rioting incidents" instead of a demonstration or "killing incidents" instead of "ethnic cleansing, or "Islamist" and "fundamentalist." In this sense, there is a countless number of words and expressions that could be biased.

Fourth: Strong, Yet Calm Language  

In verification in particular, it is important for language to be strong and calm. Thus, it uses words that can convey what is intended clearly, but without provocation. The verifier does not use condescending language that suggests that he is an authority that issues commands. This is because the verification process is a two-way process, from the verifier to the journalist and the public and the other way around. The judgment of the verifier of the credibility of a certain news report is an opinion, which could be right or wrong. It is one angle of vision, which might have overlooked other angles. This is the rationale behind the Jordanian Media Credibility Monitor's (AKEED) openness to the right of journalists and the public to reply and to correct what they believe to be erroneous in handling news items.

Therefore, words have to be chosen carefully so that the writer and the media outlet will understand that we are on one front, and not two opposed fronts, and that we seek to achieve the same goal: Media undertaking its responsibility to provide the public with the right to knowledge. Based on this, we use in the verification process the word "khati'" [incorrect/erroneous] to describe a certain piece of news, and not "mufabrak" [fabricated] because the latter suggests that the error was intentional, while it may not be as such. Also, we do not say "kadhib" [false/mendacious] news because mendacious implies a moral judgment that affects the writer and media outlet, while even journalists who are known for their professionalism and integrity might make mistakes. The same holds true for media outlets.

Here, it is important to note that the judgment must be confined to the news item in question and must not exceed it to the journalist and the media outlet that published it. Neither of them should be said to suffer from poor professionalism, bias, or deception. Confining the judgment to the news story, and not the writer, will maintain the objectivity of the discussion, while judging the writer will personalize it. When the story itself is the subject of criticism, the writer and the media outlet will be more open to criticism and more prepared for correction, while disparagement generates a feeling of insult, which, in turn, leads to a defensive reaction more than a desire for change.