A recent NYTimes piece by Karen Zraick brought iHollaback, a nifty web site that now has its very own smartphone apps for the low low price of whatever it is those things cost these days, to my attention. According to the story, iHollaback “is a Web site that encourages women to post their accounts of harassment and abuse as part of a campaign to end practices that are seldom discussed but that many women say are pervasive.”
What’s interesting about this article, other than iHollaback itself, which satisfies an obvious need and looks kind of fun (if anything related to street harassment can be fun), is the way Zraick chose to phrase the above sentence. But before we get into that, a little background:
Journalists understand the power of words. Particularly words like “say,” “claim” and “allege.” At first blush these words look like nothing more than synonyms for “speak.” But seasoned professionals have the ability to wield them in ways that can slant a story without making it seem slanted at all – many may even do it completely unconsciously.
Any of the aforementioned words, when used as modifiers for a statement that, alone, would be taken at face value, have immense power. With that in mind, take a look at the article excerpt again:
“[iHollaback] is a Web site that encourages women to post their accounts of harassment and abuse as part of a campaign to end practices that are seldom discussed but that many women say are pervasive.” (emphasis mine)
|Use these infinitive-prefacing verbs sparingly.
Note the difference in the way the two assertions in the sentence are presented. The practice of harassment lacks a “says/alleges/claims” modifier: “practices are seldom discussed.” This leads the reader to take it as an empirically verifiable fact. In contrast, harassment’s pervasiveness requires a modifier: “many women say the practice is pervasive.” Here’s a clue that the author doesn’t think this fact is supported by any evidence other than the claims of a party, in this case “many women.”
There are two main flaws with this syntax and its implications. Firstly, these “practices are seldom discussed.” Says who? Was there a study? I don’t know about you, but I discuss these practices all the time. I’m not refuting the statement – in mainstream Amerikuh, I don’t doubt that street harassment, and women’s rights in general, come up in conversation with disturbing infrequency, but it’s in no way more well-supported than the second statement.
Secondly, the subject matter of the article itself would suggest that the second statement does not require a “says” modifier. iHollaback is a Web site that sprung up to address a practice that is so pervasive that the site has regional and global variations, viral participation, at least one bajillion press mentions, an iPhone app and an Android app in development. This should be enough to, if not present pervasive street harassment as an irrefutable fact, at least qualify the statement for a modifier bye.
Modifiers are equally powerful when included or omitted, serving the opposite purposes of discrediting when included, and supporting when omitted. Thus, they can be used strategically to make a point. By modifying “these practices are pervasive” with “says” but not doing so with the previous statement, the author skewed the “truthiness” playing field – leaving readers to assume that while harassment is certainly rarely discussed, it may not actually be as common as “some women” would lead you to believe.
While this may be considered nitpicking, it’s important to realize that these people are professionals – they understand the impact a single word can have, and so choose (or should choose) them carefully. Journalists are the gatekeepers of information, and the filter through which millions of people see the world. One word can make a difference.