words and why they matter

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about language, and the way it’s used. Not such an unusual thing for a poet to do, you might think, but I’ve been focussing on how our media use language, and why the words they choose matter when it comes to reporting the news. Here’s an example: two news headlines on the homepage of the BBC website last night.

screenshot from BBC website,
3rd December 2023

First up, this one, from Ukraine. Eight words. Clear and concise. We learn who’s done what to whom, that it’s an accusation and not proven fact (although there’s fairly conclusive video evidence if you wish to look for it), while ‘unarmed’ and ‘POWs’ strongly suggest this is a crime. People with guns have killed people who cannot fight back. It’s a human rights crime, and it’s sufficiently important to be one of the front page news items in a country hundreds of miles away. That’s what this headline tells us.

a second screenshot
same website, same day

Now, headline no.2. Same website, same day. What’s going on here? Pushing. Nothing more. A push. More gentle than a shove. The sort of thing you do with doors, or lawnmowers, when you’re making your way through a crowd or to the front of a queue. It’s a push. There’s no malice in a push. Lines are being re-drawn on a map, that’s all. There’s no people involved, no-one on the receiving end of this push. Just a place – southern Gaza – which could be nothing but sand, for all we know. People? They’ve already been erased.

It’s a push. Sanitised, clean, innocuous. As far as you could possibly get from the reality of using tanks, bombs, and missiles against a population with none, which has nowhere to go. A push is not a slaughter. It isn’t even an attack. It’s certainly not a genocide.

People with guns are killing people without guns. They kill them with state-of-the-art weapons which level neighbourhoods, and they kill them with snipers. They kill men, women, and children. Thousands of children. They target hospitals and residential blocks and universities. They kill journalists. Journalists who have no guns, but whose reporting on what the people with guns are doing cannot be allowed. They wipe out families. Families which had no guns either. They see photos of dead children and claim that they are dolls.

And our media? Our media chooses to report this with anything but clarity, with words which steer us away from the reality of what is happening. Compare and contrast that with headline no.1. And when they tell you that what the people with guns are doing to the people without guns is just a push, nothing more than a push, ask yourself why they feel they need to lie.