Nadia’s blog

Literature review 2

This literature review was completed after a topic refinement and group change in week 4. It was written by myself and Alex Turnbull and can also be found on our blog, False Truths.

Language is the global communication tool of humanity. It is incredibly diverse and is always evolving and adapting to shifts in cultures and societies. People use language in a variety of ways; they speak it and hear it, they write it and read it, but most importantly, they interpret it. How someone interprets language is crucial to the intended communication of a message and to an individual’s perception of truths.

Millward (2007) says, “Words and phrases have the power to excite our spirits, to free our minds, and to help us envision innovative ideas.” He refers to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, saying that “Dr. King’s speeches are powerful because he spoke passionately about his beliefs and followed up with commitment.”

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (2008) agrees that powerful language must be backed up by action, delivering this message to Parliament: “Australians are a passionate lot. We are also a very practical lot. For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong. It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history.”

However, with a tool of such power, there will always be parties who manipulate it for their own benefit. Julian Burnside (2005) says, “In most circumstances, language is intended to convey meaning. Ideally, it should do so accurately. Some writers and speakers betray this ideal, and use language as a stalking horse for quite different ideas they wish to disguise or dare not acknowledge.”

Burnside says the techniques used fall under five broad umbrellas: tact, diplomacy, euphemism, doublespeak or lying. Each of these has a different intention behind it and an entirely different effect on the audience. “Tact sets out to avoid giving offence. It suppresses or disguises an unhappy truth to spare the feelings of another. It is falsehood in the service of kindness … When tact is lifted from the personal to the national scale, it is called diplomacy. Euphemism does not directly suppress the truth, but disguises it by substituting gentle words for harsher ones. Its intention is benign, if somewhat fey. Tact is kind; diplomacy is useful; euphemism is harmless and sometimes entertaining. By contrast, doublespeak is dishonest and dangerous.”

Those who misuse language on a large scale are generally those in power: governments, the media and authority figures, as they have large audiences who look to them for advice and guidance. Steven Poole, author of the book ‘Unspeak’ (2006), discusses this. “What do the phrases ‘pro-life’, ‘intelligent design’, and ‘the war on terror’ have in common? Each of them is a name for something that smuggles in a highly charged political opinion.” He argues that the use of language of this nature is essentially propaganda, but that most of the people hearing it fail to realise and hence buy into it. “‘Climate change’ is less threatening than ‘global warming’: we say ‘ethnic cleansing’ when we mean ‘mass murder’”. By using fluffy, less provocative language, politicians can mean something without ever really saying it at all.

The concept of ‘Unspeak’, is not a new one, and there have been ‘truth crusaders’ for a very long time. Poole quotes Confucius, a Chinese thinker and philosopher of thousands of years ago, “When the names for things are incorrect, speech does not sound reasonable; when speech does not sound reasonable, things are not done properly; when things are not done properly, the structure of society is harmed; when the structure of society is harmed, punishments do not fit the crimes; and when punishments do not fit the crimes, the people don’t know what to do.”

George Orwell (1946) would agree. He discusses the apparent decline of the English language and says, “It is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes”. He suggests the modern language of the time – which is still prevalent today – “is simply meaningless” and that “modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

Words can do a huge amount of damage. A “certain maritime incident” (also known as the ‘Children Overboard’ affair) did a lot of harm to the reputation of the Howard Government. Tom Dusevic (2004) explains what happened, “In October 2001, two days into an election campaign in which Prime Minister John Howard successfully portrayed his government as tough on border protection, ministers claimed that illegal immigrants aboard a fishing boat code-named SIEV 4 (suspected illegal entry vessel 4) had thrown children into the sea. This, government ministers suggested, was an attempt at blackmail: sailors from H.M.A.S. Adelaide, which had apprehended the vessel, would be forced to rescue the children, thus improving their families’ chances of gaining entry to Australia. Defence Minister Peter Reith, citing photographic and video evidence, said at the time: ‘It is an absolute fact – children were thrown into the water.’ The media demanded proof.” It was later established that Reith had known prior to the election that in fact, no children had been thrown overboard. However, this did not surface until after the election, and the Howard Government was re-elected. It is still not clear exactly how much Prime Minister John Howard knew, but a survey by Gary Morgan, from after the truth was revealed found that “60% of voters surveyed believe Howard deliberately misled the public on the children overboard affair”.

Likewise, a lack of words on apologising to the indigenous populations of Australia too took its toll on that Government. As Kevin Rudd said when apologising, “There is nothing I can say today that can take away the pain you have suffered personally. Whatever words I speak today, I cannot undo that. Words alone are not that powerful.” But words and language can set the tone, they can set a scene, create a feeling and put situations into context. That context can be good or bad; a situation can be moulded into one that is preferable for all, or simply preferable to whatever agenda is being pushed.

Orwell said, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

Burnside discusses similar use of language by the Nazis. “In the Nazi dictionary of sardonic euphemisms ‘final solution’ of the Jewish problem was a phrase which meant extermination; ‘special treatment’ of prisoners of war meant killing; ‘protective custody’ meant concentration camp; ‘duty labour’ meant slave labour; and an order to ‘take a firm attitude’ or ‘take positive measures’ meant to act with unrestrained savagery.”

He goes on to compare John Howard’s use of language, in particular with reference to immigration. He describes the use of phrases such as ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘detained’ and the way they evoke certain feelings, thoughts and imagery. “It seems less offensive to lock up ‘illegals’ than to lock up innocent, traumatised human beings.” The term ‘queue jumpers’ implies “that there is a queue and … that it is in some way appropriate to stand in line when your life is at risk”. When these people arrive in Australia they are ‘detained’ – “this description is false in every detail. They are locked up without trial for an indefinite period.”

Orwell argues that this use of language often renders it meaningless, “The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

A more recent example of this was when the US government, and other states with oil interests, lobbied to have the term ‘global warming’ changed to ‘climate change’. “It is clear that in the phrase ‘global warming’, after all, the word ‘warming’ implies an agent doing the warming. And once you accept that human beings might be the cause of the problem, again you will eye skeptically those with an interest in burning coal, oil, and gas. Thus the preference for the term that seems to assign no blame, ‘climate change’, works to support the notion, eagerly propagated by the Bush administration, that there is a controversy about whether there is warming, and if there is, whether humankind is to blame at all.” (Poole 2006) The term climate change has been employed to essentially cover up or sweeten the idea that the Earth is quite possibly heating up, which could lead to catastrophic circumstances. While this new term is certainly helping the oil industry avoid blame, is it helping society understand the seriousness of the situation?

The motives of language use by governments are usually quite obvious, but people still buy into them. The Iraq war is an example of this: scare mongering, powerful language and lies were all part of the US Government’s tactics in winning enough public support to invade a country even though there were plenty of other people saying that there was no imminent threat at all. Words like terror, terrorist, evil, coalition forces and the acronym ‘WMD’ (weapons of mass destruction) were all used by politicians and reinforced by media outlets. Poole discusses the use of the ‘WMD’ acronym, concluding that “wrapping it all up in the mantra WMD enabled everyone to forget about the details and simply trust that the Iraqi leader had amassed the most egregious arsenal known to man.” As Poole goes on to later describe, if politicians keep using the same emotive words again and again, the public will eventually digest them and they will become common, acceptable speak, along with the emotions they were designed to instill.

Without the media to act as a platform, politicians would be largely unable to communicate their messages to the public effectively. As well as allowing politicians to get across their messages, sometimes the media will manipulate of its own volition. One possible explanation for this beginning is “because newspapers increasingly felt they had to bring something more to the events they covered than simply telling people what happened.” (Rosenstiel 1994, cited by Andrews 2006) The media is in a position of power as it provides the main means of people acquiring information, particularly about current events.

It is widely agreed by academics that the media has a social responsibility to society to be truthful. Bardoel and D’Haenens (2004) explain McQuail’s (2000) definition of social responsibility as “the ‘obligations and expectations’ that society has regarding the media”. They go on to present his theory that the media has a public responsibility, “The general idea behind this is that the media ought to serve public purposes and be socially responsible; the theory of social responsibility of the media and the idea of media as a ‘public trustee’ are relevant here again. These ideas find both support, according to McQuail, from within the media that choose an active role in society and wish to contribute to the public good, and outside the media, with individuals and groups as constituents of civil society and operating in the public sphere.”

Likewise, the American Commission on Freedom of the Press (1947, cited by Christians and Nordenstreng 2004) found that the media has a duty to provide “a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.” They also found that the media should provide “’a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism,’ give a ‘representative picture of the constituent groups in society’, help in the ‘presentation and clarification of the goals and values of society,’ and provide full access to the day’s intelligence’.”

Not all media lives up to these responsibilities. Michael Parenti (1997) discusses both sides of the argument. “We are told by people in the media industry that news bias is unavoidable. Whatever distortions and inaccuracies found in the news are caused by deadline pressures, human misjudgement, budgetary restraints and the difficulty of reducing a complex story into a concise report. Furthermore – the argument goes – no communication system can hope to report everything: selectivity is needed.”

However, Parenti suggests “that the media’s misrepresentations are not all the result of innocent error”. He says, “media bias does not occur in random fashion” and that it favours those with a vested interest in particular media outlets. This may include favouring “corporations over corporate critics, affluent whites over low-income minorities, officialdom over protestors … US dominance of the Third World over revolutionary or populist social change, national security policy over critics of that policy.”

Parenti goes on to explain the methods by which the media can use this bias to manipulate. The techniques used differ depending on the message they are trying to communicate and their desired outcome. He says, “Manipulation often lurks in the things left unmentioned. The most common form of media misrepresentation is suppression by omission.” This can be of details of a particular story or of entire stories. He noted “stories that might reflect poorly upon ‘the powers that be’ are the least likely to see the light of day”. He says another related technique is that when a story will not go away and it gains some publicity, despite mainstream media ignoring it “the media move from ignoring the story to vigorously attacking it”.

A techniques described by both Poole and Parenti is labelling, “Media people seek to predetermine our perception of a subject with a positive or negative label … [it] predefines the subject and does it without having to deal with the actual particulars that might lead us to a different conclusion.”

Another technique Parenti discusses is face-value transmission – “one way to lie is to accept at face value what are known to be official lies, uncritically passing them on to the public without adequate confirmations.” False balancing can be used to give the appearance of showing both sides of a story, but not actually giving each equal prominence. Framing is “bending the truth rather than breaking it … Framing is the achieved in the way the news is packaged, the amount of exposure, the placement (front page or buried within, lead story or last), the headlines and photographs, and, in the case of broadcast media, the accompanying visual and auditory effects.”

However, the most well known technique is spin. To ‘put a spin on something’ is to put a bias or interpretation with the objective of creating a particular impression when delivered to the public, but spin is a word oft used as “a euphemism for deceit and manipulation”. “Spin doctors mainly exist because there is no such thing as objective truth. Facts, figures, events and words all have different meanings to different people. So their interpretation is the key issue.” (Andrews 2006)

Dusevic reflects on spin and truth, “When we teach our children about telling the truth, we tend to explain it like this: Always tell the truth because the real story will come out eventually. If you tell the truth, you won’t have to remember which version of events you told whom. If you get a reputation for dishonesty, you may not be believed even when you are telling the truth. And – borrowing from pop psychology – the truth will set you free. But in public life these days, what sets you free is spin. Playing loose with the facts keeps your options open.”

Burnside gives the example of the Howard Government to demonstrate media dishonesty: “In presenting an unbalanced view of Australia’s conduct, by not exposing the dishonesty of the Howard government, the press engages in its own form of dishonesty. They help maintain the comfortable illusion of our own worthiness, and we are blind to a society turning sour. When the process is complete, when we have been stripped of our liberties for our own protection, when the values which once held this nation high have been terminally debased, then we will realise that honesty matters.”

But how much does the media really affect and shape our views?

In October 1938, the Mercury Theater of the Air presented HG Wells’s novel ‘War of the Worlds’ as a one-hour radio program presented in the style of a news bulletin. The broadcast of a story of aliens invading earth presented as radio news convinced many that it was true, despite disclaimers from the radio station stating the opposite. People believed “if radio said we were being invaded, then it must be true”. “Hundreds of calls were placed to newspapers (the New York Times alone received more than 800), radio stations, and police. The Associated Press put out a bulletin to its member papers explaining what had happened. Only slowly on the evening of the broadcast was widespread panic reduced. Though there were many accidents on crowded roadways, luckily no-one was killed.” (Sterling 2003)

In 2006, a group of Dutch researchers (Kleinnijenhuis, et al) examined whether the way the media portrays certain events affects public trust of politicians and Government. All their research relates to the 2002 Dutch Federal Elections. The findings suggested that negative news did “lead to distrust in party leaders”. It was also found that distrust did not affect the way people intended to vote, however, on the day, distrust was a key issue in deciding whom to vote for. 32 per cent of voters said they did not choose who to vote for until the “last days before the election” or on the Election Day itself. This suggests “citizens accrue information on a daily basis but that they will often not update their summary evaluation, for example, their intention to cast a vote for a specific party, until the moment of decision.”

While the public is often made aware of the misuse of language carried out by politicians and the media, it is usually presented as satire. Is this the best way to inform people and raise awareness? Whilst television programs like ‘The Chasers War On Everything’ and ‘The Daily Show’ are very funny, are we taking anything away from them other than a few laughs? It is important that people understand the information they receive and that they do not just digest everything they hear. A more serious approach could help to improve public awareness.

Making people aware of this language is Steven Poole’s objective in writing ‘Unspeak’. He writes, “As BBC World presenter Kirsty Lang explains: ‘It’s much easier to take the language that’s given to you, and the government knows that full well. So if you keep saying “coalition forces”, “coalition forces”, people will use it. I think people do need to be more careful. They do take phrases willy-nilly from the government without thinking, without seriously analysing what they say.’ The citizen’s plan of action is simple. When the media do this, talk back: write and tell them. Possibly the growth of Unspeak cannot be reversed. But that doesn’t mean we have to go on swallowing it.”

Language is a powerful thing. It can be used for good – to inspire, excite and empower – but can equally be used for negative purposes – to manipulate, deceive and coerce. Whilst it might be impossible to stop authority figures, such as the media and politicians from using such language, there is hope. People do not have to remain impervious or ignorant to this; with greater awareness, attention and seriousness given to language manipulation, it is possible to empower audiences with the tools to understand, decipher and question the information they are given.


Millward, R 2007, ‘Leaders Understand the Power of Words’, Journal of Leadership Studies, vol.1, no. 3, p. 81-83.

Rudd, K (Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia) 2008, Apology to Australia’s indigenous peoples, 13 February 2008, House Hansard, viewed 15 April 2008,

Burnside, J 2005, Honesty matters: The ethics of daily life, New Matilda (Independent news, analysis and satire website), viewed 7 April 2008,

Poole, S 2006, ‘Unspeak: how words become weapons, how weapons become a message, and how that message becomes reality’, Time Warner Book Group UK, London.

Orwell, G 1946, Politics and the English language, University of Adelaide, viewed 13 April 2008,
Dusevic, T 2004, Truth Overboard, Time Magazine website, viewed 26 April 2008,,9171,687519-1,00.html

Andrews, L 2006, ‘Spin: from tactic to tabloid’, Journal of Public Affairs, vol. 6, February 2006, pp. 31-45
Bardoel, J & D’Haenans, L 2004, ‘Media responsibility and accountability:

New conceptualizations and practices’, The European Journal of Communication Research, vol. 29, pp. 5-25

Christians, C & Nordenstreng, K 2004, ‘Social Responsibility Worldwide’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 19, pp. 3-28
Parenti, M 1997, ‘Methods of Media Manipulation’, The Humanist, July/August 1997, pp. 5-7

Sterling, C 2004, ‘War of the Worlds: Radio drama’, Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Radio, vol. 3, pp. 1478-1481
Kleinnijenhuis, J, vanHoof, A & Oegema, D 2006, ‘Negative News and the Sleeper Effect of Distrust’, The International Journal of Press/Politics, vol. 11, Spring 2006, pp. 86-104


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