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  • Writer's pictureJessica Jaymes Purdy

Minimizing Language in Media and Public Discourse

How Words Can Conceal and Enable Harm: Article 3

White, male reporter with gray hair holding a microphone and wearing a red tie with blue suit in front of a building with columns.

Minimizing language are words and phrases that downplay the severity, harm, or unacceptability of acts of hate, prejudice, and injustice. It often appears in media coverage and public conversations about incidents targeting marginalized groups.

For example, when a journalist characterizes a public figure's bigoted statements as "sparking controversy" rather than "expressing hate," that is minimizing language. When a pundit dismisses a politician's discriminatory policy proposal as "ruffling some feathers" instead of "threatening fundamental rights," that too is minimizing language. It's a rhetorical sleight of hand that takes the focus off the actual substance of what happened.

The impact of this type of language on the public discourse is profound. When media outlets and commentators consistently use words that minimize serious expressions of intolerance, it warps the public's understanding of the issues at stake. It creates a false impression that what occurred was not actually that severe or troubling. Just a minor flare-up, not a manifestation of deep-seated prejudice.

This framing reduces public outrage and lets wrongdoers off the hook far too easily. If an incident of hate is just a "controversy," then there are no clear bad actors, just a messy difference of "opinion." Those who promoted bigotry are shielded from accountability. Those who were targeted are denied a full public reckoning with the harm done to them and their communities.

Moreover, minimizing language in media coverage of hate and injustice can make members of affected marginalized groups feel gaslit. It's a form of denying their reality. They know the ugliness and impact of what occurred, but trusted voices are telling the public it wasn't actually that bad. This can lead to self-doubt, frustration, and a sense of being silenced or erased.

That's why it's so crucial for journalists and public figures to be precise and honest in their framing of these issues. Just as important is the use of precise honest language in our personal communication as well. When hate occurs, call it hate. When groups are targeted for their identities, make that clear. When fundamental rights and dignity are threatened, say so unequivocally. Using stark, direct language conveys the severity of the situation and helps others understand what's truly at stake.

This is not about exaggeration or alarmism. It's about accurately representing serious incidents that cause real harm to marginalized people. It's about cutting through the smokescreen of minimization and showing these acts for what they are. Responsible framing is essential for focusing attention, stimulating appropriate outrage, and catalyzing the accountability necessary for social progress.

Media outlets and public commentators and allies of marginalized groups must be vigilant about identifying and rejecting minimizing language. They must embrace linguistic clarity as a moral imperative when discussing issues of hate and injustice. A commitment to telling hard truths is essential for a healthy society.

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