April 13, 2009

The Rhetoric of “Said”

Like most of my posts that begin with “rhetoric of” headlines, this one will deliver far less than the headline suggests (or far more in terms of questions). That statement, BTW, is a rhetorical maneuver.

One other maneuver: I’m about to get all traditional on you.

The rhetorical maneuvers of mainstream journalism are well-known to anyone who bothers to either study the craft or pays even modest attention to how journalists write or speak. There are many ways to classify, and thus understand, these maneuvers. For example (and just to name two), we can understand them in terms of classical rhetoric, and/or we can understand them in terms of structural bias.

A student sent me e-mail today asking about a headline he saw on the CNN website: “Woody Harrelson claims he mistook photographer for zombie.” I have no idea what this is about. Nor do I particularly care (because it’s not information I need to be free and self-governing unless the government is failing to fight zombies). My student was asking the question because I asked his class to write blog posts in which they examine the intersection of journalistic craft and journalistic ethics. I’ve told them that journalism conflates craft and ethics in such a way that practicing the craft as understood by journalists is damned near the same as practicing it ethically from the perspective of mainstream journalism.

(I’m well aware of the boat-load of qualifications that need to accopmany an assertion of that sort.)

I wrote back to the student: “I don’t like it. I say he ‘said’ it.”

I don’t need to know what the story is about to dislike the attributive verb “claim.” The verb claim, like others such as “admit,” is an opinion on the part of the reporter. The vast majority of reporters, IMO, are not qualified to make such assessments. For the most part they lack both the training in an appropriate field and the criteria to back up saying that someone “claimed” something rather than “said” it. If the words came out of Harrelson’s mouth, then he “said” it. That’s it. That’s all you need. That’s all you know. (!!!)

The rhetorical maneuver that “said” represents is rather important to journalism of a particular kind. What “said” says is: This is a record of what a person said, and you, dear audience member, can make up your own mind about what the content of said statement means.

Assuming the journalists involved in the news story have done their jobs properly (e.g. provided information and knowledge), the reader probably can make an assessment about Harrelson and zombies (or whatever other news situation). But using the attributive verb “claim,” the journalists involved (i.e. reporter and his/her editors) have decided for you what to think. Do you know absolutely for sure that Harrelson didn’t think he was seeing a zombie? (Must… stop… here.  Must… not… google… story…)

Using “claim” is an unjustified and unsupportable opinion. It is,  therefore, poor craft and poor ethics.

I believe there are three acceptable attributive verbs for news reporting: said, asked, and according to (used mostly for paper sources, e.g. reports). Everything else is an opinion (just like this entire entry).

5 Responses

  1. nuance—-

    I like your assessment

  2. Jason 

    Just for the sake of discussion, if part of a presentation has the person stating their opinion on something and they make it clear it is an opinion, wouldn’t calling it a “claim” then be justified on the part of the reporter?

    I.E. The person states that “in my opinion, City Manager Burris violated ethics rules.” Would the reporter be accurate in not using a direct quote and saying “Mr. Smith claims Burris violated ethics rules”?

    I know, they could just say “said” but I’m curious if in that case you could say the reporter was accurate in their story.

  3. acline 

    Jason… For news (not necessarily features) I think “said” is always proper because it is always accurate if words actually came out of the source’s mouth. If a reporter wishes to quote a self-characterization, that’s OK done this way e.g.: [“In my opinion, the city manager did something unethical,” Joe Blow said.] All you know for sure is that he said it, i.e. words came out of his mouth that you heard. To say he “claimed” it is, in my opinion, an unjustified opinion.

  4. Amos Bridges 

    I generally agree with this assessment and think it ties into a more general directive: Don’t use words with unintended connotations.

    That said, I think there are a few other replacements for “said” that are acceptable (and preferable for their specificity) when used correctly. For example, I think the word “alleges” is appropriate when someone makes a statement concerning (unproven) wrong-doing. So the prosecutor ‘alleges’ so-and-so robbed the bakery. Joe Public alleges the City Council violated the charter. Their statement, by definition, is an allegation, so why not use the relevant verb?

    Likewise, I’ve used the word “argues” when sources/subjects are expressing differing opinions and obviously presenting an argument. Frex: “Cline says “said” is the only acceptable verb journalists should use, while Bridges argues that a few others, used correctly, have their place.”

    But going back to your original point, I agree that ‘said’ is the safest (and often best) option, unless you’re damn sure what you’re writing means what you intend – and only what you intend.

  5. acline 

    Amos… There are a few other attributive verbs I can live when used sparingly and with care, and I’d put “argue” on that short list when used as you’ve suggested. In fact, we use “argue” all the time in academia 🙂