Why Does the Media Suck So Badly at Describing Physical Attacks?

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The next time you see something in the news where:

1) Someone inflicted physical harm on someone else

2) The attack involved a hand-to-hand attack (with a weapon or bare hands)

3) Video exists of this attack

…pay close attention to the language used to describe what happened, then compare it to what actually happens in the video.

Chances are fairly high that the journalist’s description will suck horribly, and consist of vague, half-assed, even factually wrong language, even when the video is right there for everyone to see.

Did the incident involve a knife attack? If so, the injuries will always be described as “stabbings”, regardless of whether anyone was actually “stabbed”. I remember one article which described someone who had supposedly been “stabbed in the head”, yet the injury was described as “not life-threatening” (in other words, the victim was not “stabbed”). Then there was the “mass stabbing” at Lone Star College, which was certainly a horrific incident but did not actually involve anyone being “stabbed” (the knife was a razor, which literally cannot be used to “stab”).

It’s even worse when the incident involves an attacker using bare hands/feet, particularly from a law enforcement officer. In such cases, chances are that the description will consist of weak and imprecise language which effectively downplays the severity of the attack, and even potentially obscures the intent of the attacker.

Take the recent case of the Columbus police officer who committed blatant brutality when he stomped a stationary, handcuffed, and defenseless victim in the face, directly into the road. Countless media reports described it as “kick”, not only making it sound far less serious than it was, but even making it sound like a potential accident (which a “stomp” cannot possibly be).

And this certainly wasn’t an anomaly. Just days later, video emerged of a virtually identical incident in Georgia, with virtually identical results.

Or take the example of the David Dao, the victim in the United Airlines case. Countless articles described him “hitting an armrest” (or similar such language), which doesn’t even begin to convey how hard his face was smashed into the armrest, doesn’t begin to convey the severity of the injuries he sustained (a concussion, facial laceration, broken facial bones, lost teeth) and also leaves open the possibility that the contact was incidental, unintentional, or even potentially self-inflicted (remember when the police initially claimed he “fell” and “subsequently struck an armrest”?) Some of the early reports inexplicably failed to even mention him hitting the armrest at all, even with the video right there.

Or consider one of most blatant cases in recent memory, when an Alabama cop used a martial arts-style trip-takedown to slam an elderly (and innocent) man with full force into the ground, thereby inflicting permanent paralysis. How was this described in many (maybe even most) of the media reports? That the police officer “threw him to the ground”.

Pathetic.

So why do they do this? This seems to be such a chronic problem that I have a hard time attributing it to just plain incompetence or bad writing (if anything, I usually see this in articles that are otherwise well-written). Is it due to ideological bias, in an attempt to minimize the culpability of the attackers? Maybe in some cases, but doubtful in most; even liberal/progressive media sources (such as the Salon.com link above) are guilty of this.

The most likely explanation seems to be that these journalists are so afraid that the use of accurate and truthful language would come across as “editorializing” and make it seem that they’re not being objective/impartial in their reporting, so they resort to using these mealy mouthed, vague descriptions instead, in an attempt to appear “neutral”.

Which gets into a larger point, i.e. the media’s tendency to not understand the difference between being legitimately unbiased/impartial and adopting a forced “faux-neutrality” which tries so hard to be “neutral” that they’re afraid to even describe what actually happened, even when it’s a simple statement of objective fact (to describe what the Georgia and Columbus cops did as a “stomp” is not even a matter of subjective debate; it’s simply what they did, by definition).

And by doing this, these journalists are truly doing a disservice to their readership by failing to remain truthful and accurate in their reporting, even to the point that by trying so hard to avoid the appearance of bias they’re actually choosing dishonesty instead.

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