Tag Archives: language

Is missing the ‘subject’ the point in news coverage of violent suppression of strikes?

“Cambodia garment workers’ strike turns deadly after police open fire”
This story’s headline reveals a lot about the nature of power structures in society if we consider some basic facts about the nature of news headlines in terms of syntax or the arrangement of and choice of words. If you read it straight through, you will notice that this sentence is written in the passive voice.

The initial implication of the structure or syntax is that the ‘Cambodia garment workers’ strike turns deadly’ because of the workers or their strike, not because of the police open fire. In fact, when you first read it, did you think perhaps the police open fire because the Cambodia garment workers’ strike turned deadly?
Certainly, that is one implication: the police are responding to a ‘deadly turn’ in the strike, something that is/was caused by the workers themselves (i.e. the strike) rather than by the police. This in turn implies that the three workers (and other striking workers) are responsible for their own (colleagues’) deaths.

But, ask yourself, ‘why did “Cambodia garment workers’ strike turns deadly”? Is it not because ‘police open fire’? If you read further into the news story, you will know that the police were armed with the AK-47 (i.e. automatic rifle). The striking workers were not armed.
Why not write the sentence like this (using almost all the exact same words): ‘ Cambodian police open deadly fire on striking garment workers’? This sentence makes it more clear as to the ‘subject-verb-action’ of the simple sentence and gives what is surely a more direct relationship between ’cause-and-effect’ – i.e. what happened – by putting the subject (‘police’) before the verb (‘open fire’) and the ‘object’ of ‘effect’.
Would this not be the better form of journalism whereby the ‘actors’ (i.e. police) or ‘subject’ (of the sentence) engaged in the ‘action’ (verb) on the ‘object’ (i.e. workers) so that it is clear. You should compare this to other forms of news coverage to get a sense of how news works to help construct a particular view of the world.

However, I would just point out that as we become accustomed to reading news in a particular fashion, we do not think consciously about these sorts of structures – even if you are a critical thinking individual engaged in the world around us. (There are many scholarly studies  of news coverage of protests from which I have drawn.) 

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The ‘difficult task’ in the language of cuts

Following various links to stories, I came across one on the CBC News website entitled: ‘Clement prepared for difficult Treasury Board post’ (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2011/05/19/ottawa-clement-treasury-board-public-service.html).

The audio clip on the left-hand side, below the headline, is captioned: ‘Clement prepared for difficult cuts’.

This is the language of (public – and private – sector) cuts. It is always a ‘difficult task’ and it is almost always written in the passive voice, as if they (the people taking the actions) have ‘no choice’ and are acting almost as if they are compelled to do so in a manner in which they would not have otherwise acted (unless, of course, compelled to).

However, this is incorrect. As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has pointed out (http://rabble.ca/news/2011/06/federal-budget-set-unleash-significant-program-spending-cuts-ccpa), there are alternatives to the Conservatives’ proposed budget (cuts). None of what is taking place needs to take place; it is a conscious choice, a deliberative act on the part of people with the power to act.

Indeed, it is part of the Harper Conservative government agenda (it is not a ‘hidden’ agenda so much as one they have tried to hide behind various types of ‘spin’ and manipulation of language, such as the idea that this budget was the same as the one in March, which the CCPA quite rightly pointed out was not true!).

Discussions more generally in mainstream mass media usually write or speak of economies or economics in terms associated with ‘nature’. Humans, you see, are not able to control nature because it is a ‘force’ beyond human control (pay close attention to the next business or economic news story that you see and see what kinds of metaphors they use). It is what corporate elites and their politicians want you to think because it also has the added bonus (for them) of explaining away how they have to make those cuts (that you feel, but not them) (you know, before they hit that ‘debt wall’).

The use of language leads us to the frames and framing. Whoever frames the question, will force the answer – if not the one they want, then the answer they want you to give.

N.B.: At many mainstream media outlets, I should point out, journalists are being compelled to produce more stories with fewer resources (and time!) and therefore will fall back on convention and what they have been taught or learned. This doesn’t make it right, but perhaps journalists may be compelled to respond to people complaining to their editors (appointed by owners and who usually have the last word!) about the language used.

Also, another useful strategy might be to ask yourself, how else might that phrase be written? ‘Clement will make cuts that will make public sector employees lives worse’; OR ‘Clement relishes wielding power to carry out his ideological beliefs in small government’; OR ‘Clement relishes chance to squeeze the middle class’.

Frankly, I do not believe that the people making these ‘difficult cuts’ feel any of the ‘pain’ that the rest of us do. Otherwise, why would they (especially the Conservatives and their corporate allies) spend so much money on advertisements and spin trying to cover it up or make it appear different to the way it is? (Or try to get you to turn on other people who are a wee bit worse off than you are!)

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