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Journalists: mind your language


The Guardian has updated its style guide to ensure climate change reporting is more scientific. It is the latest in a series of moves by newsrooms such as the BBC and the Associated Press to eradicate ‘loose’ language – recalling Orwell’s ideas about the dangers of euphemistic language, argues Roisin McCormack.

In his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell warned of the dangers of political language being vague, woolly and euphemistic; it was not only an indicator of bad writing, he argued, but also of the intent “to deceive”. 

More than half a century later, it seems these arguments are being vividly brought to life both in newsrooms and in politics, as Conservative MP, Boris Johnson, claims voters are being alienated by “muffled and veiled language” – and the Guardian revises its style guide to ensure reporters use more “scientifically precise” and less “passive” language around the subject of climate change. 

The updates include referring to climate change as either a ‘climate emergency’, ‘crisis’ or ‘breakdown’, describing global warming as ‘global heating’ and calling climate sceptics straight-out ‘deniers’.

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Explaining the decision, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Katharine Viner, said: “Increasingly, climate scientists and organisations from the UN to the Met Office are changing their terminology and using stronger language to describe the situation we’re in.”

Only a few months earlier, BBC interviewers were criticised for not effectively challenging guests denying or downplaying the effects of climate change. This led to enforced training across the corporation on how to report on climate change – with emphasis being placed on reporters “not needing a ‘denier’ to balance the debate.” In the case of climate change, to balance or soften language around the debate is now to deny scientific fact.

Orwell’s landmark essay gains new relevance here. Both moves highlight the responsibility journalists and the media have to use language in the most direct and concrete way possible. 

Updates to the 2019 edition of the Associated Press stylebook, meanwhile, offer another example of how editors are reconsidering the language used around politicised subjects like race. The international news agency’s decision to stop hyphenating ‘dual heritage’, and its advice against using “euphemisms“ like ‘racially charged’ when ‘racist’ actually applies”, translate Orwell’s ideas into action, it could be argued.

Read more:

Word of the Week: ‘libra’

Spoken Word: June

Roisin McCormack