In journalism, nuances such as “sources tell us…” “reportedly…” “it appears…” “confirmed…” matter.

I don’t click on headlines that use words like “might be” or “possibly.”

Journalists are not in the business of reporting what might happen. Neither do they repeat rumors. A thing is not necessarily true just because a source — such as the neighborhood busybody, a crook caught red-handed, a prankster, or the President of the United States speaking at a rally — says it.

We expect good journalists to work hard to present the news in context, avoiding even the potential for misunderstanding. Meanwhile, marketers and lawyers and politicians happily play fast and loose with language (c.f. Bill Clinton’s famous quibble over the definition of “is”).

Once when I was a brand-new assistant professor leading a class discussion, I told my students I would read some provocative statements from literary works, and told them I wanted them to use evidence from the assigned readings to assess the value of each statement. When I read a sexist statement (uttered by a supporting character whose function was to be an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome), I heard a female voice in the hallway gasp and fire back a retort. (I was in the back of the room at the time, so when I went out into the hallway, I couldn’t spot the speaker… this was almost 20 years ago, and my brain still turns it up for me to worry about.)

So, while it’s factually true that I, Dr. Dennis Jerz, uttered a sexist statement in my classroom, in context the students certainly understood I was presenting a scenario for them to respond to.

Sources make all kinds of “true” statements that reporters have to contextualize, cross-check, and evaluate. That background research takes time. A reporter covering a breaking story can’t leave the convention hall where a big speech is taking place or leave the side of the road where a big accident just happened in order to check every statement they encounter.

Photo by cal harding // creative commons on flickr

Journalists have a range of words they use in order to convey when they are confident enough to report something, but because their reports are preliminary the facts may not all be clear yet. Sometimes sources are wrong; sometimes they conceal or embellish details. Sometimes sources passionately believe information that turns out to be inaccurate. Sometimes conflicting reports come from credible sources with incomplete information, or from people with a vested interest in sowing confusion (which leads the public to say “I don’t know what to believe,” which always benefits whoever is in power at the time).

In a blog post from 2013, Andy Carvin gives a run-down. “We’re getting reports” means that you’ve heard from more than one source, and their stories match, but the story is still developing, so the reporter’s understanding is preliminary. If you use the word “reportedly,” as in “The cat has reportedly been rescued from the tree,” you’ve written a sentence that you can turn into confident reportage just by striking one word — but for now, you need to keep that word in there. (See “When Reporting Breaking News, Words Matter – And Sometimes Languages, Too.”)

Carvin laments that, when compared to some other languages, English is very poor at conveying confidence through grammar.

This spectrum of words and phrases constitute an area of linguistics known as evidentiality, which explores how evidence is conveyed in a language, including the nature of that evidence. In English, journalists use those words and phrases to convey what they know and how they know it, but because we don’t always think about their meaning, we often miss their intended nuance. And nuance is a big deal when you’re trying to say whether or not something is indeed true, especially if you plan to retweet it or share it in some fashion.

English could actually stand to learn from other languages that have evidentiality baked into the essence of their grammar. A number of indigenous languages are actually really good at doing this. Take, for example, Makah, spoken as a second language by a tribe on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. (Alas, the last fluent native speaker of Makah passed away in 2002.)  They actually have suffixes you can add to a verb to change the word and convey how you know something may be true.

If you use the Makah suffix -wa·t, for example, it tells you that something is hearsay, like “I hear the cat has been rescued from the tree.” Another suffix, -x̌a·-š, is used to infer probability, as in, “It’s probable that the cat has been rescued from the tree. Other suffixes convey visual evidence, including whether it’s unclear (“It looks like the cat has been rescued from the tree”) or if there’s enough physical evidence to infer that it’s true (“I see that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”) There’s even a suffix that conveys auditory evidence: “I heard the cat has been rescued from the tree” – perhaps, let’s say, because the speaker heard the owner of the cat express thanks to the rescuers. —Andy Carvin (via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine)

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