Media Language and the Teach-In Walkout   Leave a comment

I had mentioned that I was not pleased with many of the news articles I read on yesterday’s walkout rally of the “Cookout” Teach-In. I like to examine language closely, and did not think the language used by print reporters adequately captured the atmosphere and spirit of the walkout rally. As strict definitions, words like “disrupt” and “storm” might not be offensive, but the emotional bias and framing issues triggered by the use of such words subtly puts a certain stigma on the demonstration.

When I got home and started eagerly reading what journalists had written about the event, I was full of the excitement of just having been there. I transferred my own excitement into the words I read, imprinting the powerful images I still held in my head onto the words on the page. This was a result of my having been there. Had I not been at the event, I’m not sure that I would have guessed the event was as I experienced it from the way many journalists described it. This brings up the point/cliche that words cannot adequately capture the energy of such an empassioned event. That’s a generally acceptable notion.

An issue that concerns me is the way an average person who was not on the UCSD campus yesterday would intuitively feel about the walkout rally based on journalists’ accounts. I think that many of them, for whatever reason, chose to use words that don’t necessarily have a negative definition, but resonate with a tinge of negative connotation in people’s minds. I don’t think this was a you-had-to-be-there event, but I do think the media accounts could have been more representative of the atmosphere.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, written by Steve Schmidt of the San Diego Union Tribune. In his article, Steven writes, “Stung by a pair of racially charged incidents, the students stormed out of an administration-organized teach-in…” in description of the walkout rally.

The BSU made it clear that this is not merely an issue of a pair of incidents, but an institutional problem, and Steve would have clearly heard this message if he’s paid attention. When Steve says “stormed out”, which I guess is supposed to describe the way students loudly, but peacefully filed out of the ballroom, he evokes an emotion in the reader. I personally think of a child who didn’t eat his vegetables and didn’t get dessert when I hear “stormed out”. The walkout was not a tantrum. It was not a volatile emotional response to something that happened at the Teach-In, but a symbolic gesture of its inadequacy. I don’t believe the images “stormed out” stirs up in our minds was reflective of the spirit of the walkers out.

Larry Gordon of the Los Angeles Times gives us another example as he wrote, “A student walkout Wednesday disrupted a UC San Diego teach-in that was intended to promote tolerance…” Larry has to know that i’s very easy to associate the words “disrupted” and “student”- we think of a second grader pounding on the desk, speaking loudly without raising his hand, and throwing balls of paper across the classroom. That’s what a disruptive student is, that’s the image that’s triggered when we hear “disrupted” and “student” close to each other.

Larry can’t be denied the word “disrupted” because by its hard definition, the walkout could be defined as a “disruption”, but the connotation of “disruption” should not apply. More accurately than a mere disruption, the walkout completely upstaged the  Teach-In as a bigger demonstration of speech. Only about 100 people were reported to be left after the walkout occurred, so by “disrupted”, what Larry really meant was “effectively dissolved” or something like that. The other problem having to do with “disrupted” is that “intended to promote tolerance” follows in the sentence. We have a group of students disrupting the promotion of tolerance in this set-up. They were in fact “disrupting” in the name of promoting tolerance and more. Way to go, Larry.

Using the same “disrupt” root as Larry is James R. Riffel of the City News Service. James titles his article “Walk-out disrupts UCSD teach-in on racism”. The same “disrupt”-related criticisms that apply to Larry apply to Jim as well, but the fact that he titles his article this way makes him special. A title is what interests a potential reader in the article, and gives a first impression. What you title your piece gives the reader an initial perception of what happened. When you put “disrupt” in the title, the reader can’t help but have images of misbehaving students in his head. James surely understands the power of titles, and perhaps his editors have final titling power, but setting up the title in this way gives an immediate negative impression before the reader finds out anything more about what happened.

Angela Chen of the UCSD Guardian did a better job than any of the other journalists I’ve mentioned here in trying to provide a more accurate description that doesn’t trigger negative connotations. She writes that “Hundreds of students walked out of an administration-planned teach-in yesterday morning to attend a counter teach-in organized by the Black Student Union.” That sounds pretty much like what happened, Angela. Thank you.

Angela also doesn’t try to justify the Teach-In through its intentions, it simply states the key verb as “walked out” which gives an even calmer and more civil feeling than “walkout” might. When I read Angela’s line here, I picture a calm demonstration that must have had an important motivation behind it. Unlike the others, Angela seems to have been very mindful of the way her words could give misleadingly negative impressions to her readers, and deserves applause for this.


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