Word Choice and Power

Watching the live reporting during the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021, I was thinking about two things: racial inequities in policing, and bias in the word choice used to report collective actions.

Both are critically important to unpack, and challenge. On the first disturbing point, please read the articles I’ve posted below about racial injustice in the police response. In this blog post, I’m staying in my lane as a language and literacy educator and focusing on word choice and, specifically, using word choice to closely analyze author bias in news sources.

The Power of  Words

As a language teacher, I often think of word choice as a continuum from imprecise words to precise words. Language learners (and I include myself here as a Spanish language learner) often use vague words to describe something until we learn a more precise term. In student talk and writing, we may notice general words like things or stuff, or an imprecise word like sad used to describe another more specific emotion.

As a writer and language arts teacher, I also know word choice can show bias and shape the tone of a piece. Word choice is our power as authors. A subtle shift in a single word can alter the entire tone of a sentence, and move readers in a different way. The words a writer uses to describe someone influence how a reader sees and feels about that person. The words a writer uses to describe a movement influence how readers see that movement. Writers who use word choice effectively are influential, often in ways readers don’t even see.

Analyzing word choice for bias is our power as readers. When we know how to listen and read critically for bias in word choice, we maintain our power to decide whether or not we will be influenced by those words. As readers and consumers of news, a focus on word choice helps us make the unconscious conscious. It helps us discern the authors’ perspective, so we can be aware of bias in news reports and how the framing of a story using particular words can shape our understanding.

If you are a language arts nerd, as I am, you know what I’m referencing here cuts across many of the core literacy standards. These critical literacy skills are at the heart of what we are charged to teach as educators. Word choice is about so much more than the standards or the curriculum. Learning how to think and read critically is imperative for constructive participation in a democracy.

Word Choice Honors. Word Choice Condemns.

It amazes me how easily our human brains resort to organizing events into narratives in which each player has a clear role as good or evil, hero or villain. Such a framework is typically an oversimplification, and diminishes human complexities. It is, however, at play in our biases when we process news and communicate events.

In news reports, the shift of a single word changes the frame around a person from hero to villain, from someone to value to someone to fear. For example, compare these words and phrases used to describe an individual: thug vs. teen with mental illness, undocumented immigrant vs. refugee. What emotions does each word bring up? What role do your different identities have in how you respond to these words? Which words or phrases elicit fear, and which of them elicit empathy? For a deep dive into racial bias in newscaster word choice, do a comparative analysis of word choice in news reports from the past decade about white shooters, and reports on Black men shot by police.

Protester. Rioter. Insurrectionist. Traitor.

As the events unfolded at the Capitol building January 6, 2021, the words I heard repeatedly on the news were protesters and protest. What did you hear? What words were coming to mind for you as you watched the scene unfold?

By the next morning, the language had changed: riot, rioters, violent mob, white supremacist domestic terrorists, insurgents, insurrection, siege, and sedition.

I found myself enraged at the word choice of the people reporting the event live. I saw footage that looked like a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol and in an attempted political coup. I heard white reporters describing the mob that forced their way past the police as “protesters,” and remembered news reports in the past years which described peaceful Black Lives Matters protesters as a “mob.” I experienced cognitive dissonance between what I saw and how I heard it being described.

I was grateful I knew how to be a critical, close reader of word choice, so I could step back from the experience and reflect. I could recognize that word choice has more to do with each speaker and each writer than anything else, and that as a reader and a listener, my role is to interact with that text and make meaning. This includes recognizing author bias (which I hope you are also doing as you read my words). It also includes reflecting on how my lens, as a middle-aged white woman in California, impacts what I perceive.

The next instructional activities I offer here are intended to invite critical reflection and dialogue on word choice. By now, it’s likely you’ve had the first conversations with students about the insurrection, so you may not need any reminders about being mindful of trauma. If you have not already, I do recommend reading expert posts on discussing traumatic events the days after they happen such as this post by Dr. Alyssa Hadley-Dunn which also details important considerations to make based on our racial identities and those of our students. Honor the trauma that is real in all of this, especially for Black students, Indigenous students, and all students of color witnessing the blatant racial inequalities in the policing of collective action, and the biases in word choice used to describe the people involved.

Word Choice Analysis Activities with Students

For all of these activities, I’m focusing on the words protest, riot, and insurrection. These activities can also be done with other words, and also in other contexts. I recommend teaching the words first and encouraging students to keep the definitions at their fingertips as they do any of these activities. These activities aren’t about testing students on literal definitions; they’re about helping students use their understandings of the words to think about nuances in word meanings, to make claims and justify their thinking.

I’m going to use the vague word choice, “events of January 6” to avoid directing the analysis to my bias. I shared my personal response above, but with students I prefer to put the text or image in front of them and let them analyze, express opinions, and justify. If we are too quick to share our interpretations, often students will just parrot what they have heard teachers say (as we have the power of the grade book), and not think critically, which is the whole point.

That said, these conversation prompts are not open invitations for all views about white supremacy. White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to all people who don’t identify as and who are not perceived as white. We must take a strong stand against hate, and against comments that cause harm in our communities. Period.

This is a list of many ideas. Please choose one and start there. I always prefer to choose one provocative question or task and create space for dialogue, than to fill class time with many different directions and questions.

  1. Compare nuances in word meanings.  This is actually the first of three word-relationship lessons my book EL Excellence Every Day (p. 166). After teaching literal meanings of words, go deeper. Have students compare the words with reflection questions: How are the words similar? How are they different? Focus on two or three words for this activity, words that are very similar in meaning and sometimes confused.  For example, three words I choose to compare relevant to news reports on January 6 are protest, riot, and insurrection.  
  2. Choose a word and justify your response.  Being mindful of trauma in your selection, choose an image or short video of the events on January 6, 2021. Ask students to describe the movement using one of the words (riot, protest, insurrection) or another word or word phrase if they think another is more accurate. Have them justify their thinking with evidence from the image or video. I recommend this begin as a reflect-and-write task.  If you are navigating many perspectives and fear some student responses may trigger trauma in other students, I recommend this be a think-and-write task and you collect responses one day and have the discussion the next. This is a great way to take a pause, and also helps you reflect and process the responses before creating a safe space for courageous dialogue.
  3. Analyze word choice in a news report. This is what we think of in language arts as a close read with a focus on author word choice and bias. This is a good follow up to the previous activity. Choose a news report from January 6, 2021 that was made close to the time the events were unfolding. Watch and analyze the word choices the speaker used. Do you agree or disagree with the word choices? Why? Justify your thinking with specific evidence from videos or images.
  4. Compare two news reports.  On the surface, this is simply an activity of comparing two texts for author bias, an activity I recommend be routine in literacy teaching. Because of the legacy of violence and trauma connected to this content, however, intentional planning with an anti-racist lens is required to cultivate a safe space for courageous dialogue that challenges racism and does not perpetuate racial harm. This post has some of the considerations. For this comparative reading activity, choose two news reports: one from mid-day January 6, 2021 and one from another event in which the collective action is for Black rights and Black lives. Which words would you use to describe the collective action in each event? Which words do the reporters use? Is there a difference in their word choice and the words you would use?
  5. Reflect on the power of word choice in the news. As an extension to activity 3 or 4, invite reflection on the power of word choice in the media to influence perceptions in a community or nation. Reflection questions to consider: How does reporters’ word choices influence us and our national society? Do you believe you are influenced by reporters’ word choices? Why or why not? Do you believe others are influenced by biases in word choice? Why or why not?  How does word choice in the media serve to maintain or challenge white supremacy? What changes do you want to see?

Since I started writing this post, I’ve been paying close attention to word choice in the ongoing news about the insurrection on the Capitol. Some of the words and word phrases I see used by media include: sedition, assault, insurrection, instigate violence, white supremacist mob, insurrectionists, white supremacist domestic terrorists, traitors.  What other words do you hear and read? For the comparison activities above, choose two to three words that are relevant to the sources you use, and ideally words that are the same part of speech (e.g. democracy and dictatorship; assault and sedition; or insurrectionists and rioters).

Too Political?

Political is another word that gets used a lot in education. It gets used as a wall to block any dialogue that might question power imbalances and racial inequities. As a white teacher, who grew up conditioned to avoid all conflicts and not talk about race, I have to be honest that word had power over me. My fear of that very word being used against me had me steer clear of important dialogues early in my career. I understand this word is also on educators’ minds as they process these events alone, with colleagues or with students.

I want to make an important distinction here between teaching students to think and teaching them what to think. The latter—using our platform as educators to teach students what to think, such as teaching them that one political party or candidate is superior to others—is problematic. By contrast, creating lessons that help students reflect, analyze, and read closely and critically is our job. At their core, these activities focus on inviting students to see, notice, analyze, reflect, and discuss. They are designed to help students think and make their own meaning, so they can continue to do so beyond school, as the writers, readers, thinkers, and voters who will shape the future of this world.

 

Recent Sources on the Racial Injustice in Police Response

PBS Interview with Ibram X. Kendi (Video)

Michelle Obama’s reflection

Race double standard clear in rioters’ Capitol insurrection by Aaron Morrison 

What happened at the Capitol Shows White Privilege in plain view by Chidozie Obasi

Related Readings and Resources

Helping Students Fight Misinformation Around the Capitol Insurrection 

Resources for Teachers on the Days After the Attack on the US Capitol via Beyond the Spotlight

Responding to the Insurrection at the Capitol via Facing History in Ourselves

Caring for Students in the Wake of Traumatic Events via Edweek

 

Image Source

Singer, T.W. (2018) EL Excellence Every Day: The Flip-to Guide for Differentiating Academic Literacy. Corwin Press, p. 166.

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.

One Comment

  • John V Lokken

    January 14, 2021, 1:56 pm

    Tonya:

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and ideas on how to teach the power of words. I especially liked how you described as people learn a language they start with vague terms and later learn and use words that are more precise. This will is really helpful!

    Peace,
    John

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