Loaded words quickly ignite readers' perception of media arrogance and bias. Found most often in color narrative and political reports, loaded words may or may not be used intentionally, but they project judgment and opinion that can undermine the credibility of the story, the writer and the newspaper or magazine in which they're printed.
I came across an example today in a headline on the Romenesko site: "Obama turns to the web to bypass news media." (Emphasis mine.)
Does "bypass" mean that President Obama is doing an end-run around the news media? Is he trying to escape media scrutiny or snub the media? Is he pulling a dirty trick or is he simply going directly to Web audiences as the story explained fairly and clearly?
On the other hand, are the media acting like spoiled brats and trying to tattle on Obama for a bad thing? Are we glimpsing media arrogance? Those questions crossed my mind, and I'll bet a COBRA payment that many readers would react similarly. As an ombudsman, I heard plenty of complaints, mostly justified, about loaded words.
Every journalist knows or should know about loaded words, which, for credibility's sake, should be avoided unless there is compelling reason not to do so.
Loaded words are an old, ongoing problem that mars credibility. That's why in 2005 I worked with Heath Meriwether on a loaded-words project for Knight Ridder. I'll talk about that in an upcoming post, but for now here's one example of a problematic reference: Congress "gutting" a budget instead of "trimming" or "cutting." Here's how that struck a Star-Telegram reader that year who came across the use of "gutting" in such a story:
"Of course, only Republicans 'gut' social programs while Democrats 'trim' defense spending. Even slowing the rate of increase of an entitlement becomes a huge cut in the media's view if a Republican does it."
"Trim" or "cut" -- even "deep cuts" or "deeply cut" -- would have been perfectly accurate and not likely to inflame readers, especially those who are prone to read "media agenda" into every sentence published. "Gut" projects dark intention and/or action that the story/writer/newspaper opposes. "Gut" is colorful and strong, but the use of it injects a perception of opinion into the story, resulting in compromised credibility.
Writing that's fair, accurate, balanced and ethical doesn't have to be colorless or bland, but it should always keep credibility -- and loaded words -- in mind.