Let’s consider the word “controversial.” According to Merriam-Webster it is “of, relating to, or arousing controversy.” “Controversy” is defined as “a discussion marked especially by the expression of opposing views.”
The Online Etymology Dictionary says “controversy” comes “from Old French controversie or directly from Latin controversia, from controversus ‘turned in an opposite direction, disputed, turned against,’ from contra ‘against’ (see contra) + versus ‘turned toward or against,’ past participle of vertere ‘to turn,’ from PIE root *wer- (2) ‘to turn, bend.'”
I’ve been listening to National Public Radio and CNN a lot lately. It seems nearly impossible to listen to one of their news programs for an hour with hearing the word “controversial” at least once. I did a search of the word “controversial” on NPR’s website and found dozens of results, including stories with the following headlines:
- After Controversy Over Condolence Calls, Can Trump And The White House Refocus?
- Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra Confronts Controversy Over Right-Wing Guest Conductor
- Athletes On The Track And The Slopes Are Pulled Into Trump Controversy
- Betsy DeVos’ ‘School Choice’ Controversy; Historically Black Colleges And More
- Amid Conspiracy Controversy, Hannity Takes A Vacation — And Vows To Return
- The Russian Hacking Controversy: What We Do And Don’t Know
- White House Defends Controversial Order On Immigration
- Sen. Jeff Sessions Addresses Past Racism Controversy In Confirmation Hearing
- North Carolina Lawmakers Fail To Repeal Controversial Bathroom Law
You may have noticed each of these headlines concerns Republican/conservative individuals, policies, or actions. Of course, given that Republicans currently control the White House and Congress, perhaps one would expect recent headlines such as these to be overwhelmingly about Republicans/conservatives rather than Democrats/liberals. However, I did a Google search of the words “Trump controversial” on December 31 found about 65,700,000 results. I did the same with the words “Obama controversial” and found about 33,000,000 results, including a story about his “tan suit controversy.” Trump had served as president for less than a year, while Obama had served as president for eight years, yet there were twice as many “controversial” results regarding Trump.
CNN and the New York Times reported that this year’s Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was “controversial.” However, they were reluctant to call that act, which a majority of Americans opposed and all but one Republican in Congress rejected, “controversial” in 2009 and 2010. Of course, PBS, CBS, Yahoo News, and many other media outlets labeled the Republican’s recently-passed tax bill “controversial.”
“Controversial” is an odd word for journalists to use. After all, any issue is, by definition, “controversial.” In fact, The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law explicitly instructs journalists to avoid the words “controversial” and “noncontroversial.” “All issues are controversial,” notes The AP Stylebook, which is considered the journalist’s bible. “A noncontroversial issue is impossible. A controversial issue is redundant.” Further, The AP Stylebook also instructs journalists to avoid the word “controversial,” saying it’s overused.
Remarkably, even the Associated Press ignores its own stylebook. For example, in a December 14 headline, the AP announced, “Republican tax bill drops controversial loan provisions.”
So why do journalists repeatedly use “controversial,” even though their own “bible” tells them to avoid the word. I believe they do so to discredit the individual or issue they label “controversial.” If you Google the words “avoid controversy,” you’ll find over a million results, including the following headlines:
- “5 Ways to Avoid Controversy When Teaching About Religion”
- “In an effort to avoid controversy, ESPN created it”
- “NHL’s attempt to avoid political controversy misfires”
- “Alcoholics Anonymous drops manuscript suit to avoid controversy”
- “Fordham University falters in trying to avoid controversy”
Aren’t individuals and institutions conditioned to avoid controversy? And, if that is the case, aren’t we also conditioned to avoid “controversial” candidates and issues? Is it possible that when a reporter says, “Candidate A is controversial,” she is really saying, “Avoid Candidate A and vote for Candidate B”? When a reporter calls an issue “controversial,” is he really saying, “Oppose this issue”? Isn’t this a sneaky way for them to take sides and still maintain the appearance of objectivity?
I may be completely wrong about this and am open to other theories concerning why journalists use the word “controversial” when they are instructed to avoid that word. However, please listen closely when you hear a reporter use “controversial” regarding an individual or issue. Is the individual a conservative or liberal? Is the issue being promoted by conservatives or liberals? And what message are reporters trying to convey when they use the word?
Kevin Groenhagen is the author of The Tea Party Challenge: Understanding the Threat Posed by the Socialist Coalition.