Other linguistic choices, however, do come with significant consequences. Consider the phrase “achievement gap,” which some critics of the No Child Left Behind law, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education policy, say has replaced the concept of “equal educational opportunity” as the guiding frame for how the nation understands educational success. In the June 6, 2007, issue of Education Week, James Crawford, president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy, a nonprofit advocacy group, traces the insinuation of “achievement gap” into the national discourse on education to the late 1990s, as then Governor Bush of Texas and his adviser Karl Rove were planning a bid for the White House in which school reform would figure prominently. Crawford suggests that Bush’s goal was to “seize an issue traditionally owned by Democrats and give it a ‘compassionate conservative’ spin. By stressing the achievement gap, candidate Bush redefined civil rights in the field of school reform.” Crawford continues:

What’s the significance of this shift in terminology? Achievement gap is all about measurable outputs—standardized-test scores—and not about equalizing resources, addressing poverty, combating segregation, or guaranteeing children an opportunity to learn. The No Child Left Behind Act is silent on such matters. Dropping equal educational opportunity, which highlights the role of inputs, has a subtle but powerful effect on how we think about accountability. It shifts the entire burden of reform from legislators and policymakers to teachers and kids and schools.

As I’ve suggested, the scope of the rhetoric beat could be defined a number of ways, but the organizing idea is to help keep political discourse as clear and intellectually honest as possible, and to make readers and viewers aware of how the seemingly benign words and phrases they encounter daily are often finely calibrated to influence how they think about ideas. That there is disagreement about to what degree language dictates thought provides the rhetoric reporter with a rich intellectual ferment in which to ground his reporting.

By tracing the history of how a given word or phrase came to be applied to a policy or action, for instance, the rhetoric reporter could make readers and viewers aware of competing ways of understanding it. Consider the anodyne-sounding “support our troops.” In the past five years, the Bush administration and its supporters have used variations of this phrase to counter critics of its policies, defining it selectively to mean that any suggestion that the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t going well is unpatriotic, an insult to the brave men and women fighting and dying for our freedom. Rhetorically, it was the domestic version of “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” On June 3, The New York Times published an editorial called WHAT ‘SUPPORT OUR TROOPS’ ENTAILS, which suggested, based on some excellent reporting by the Times and other news outlets, that “the administration has systematically shortchanged the wounded and maimed who make it back from harm’s way.” Certainly a different way to think about the phrase “support our troops,” and one that the administration had little use for.

In some cases, once a rhetoric reporter reveals significant problems with a phrase, it may be useful for the newsroom to develop a policy about its use of the phrase and explain that to readers and viewers. Reuters has long had a policy of avoiding “emotive” language, such as “terrorist,” unless in a direct quote, for example, and on page 34, Geoffrey Cowan describes how a key group of executives and journalists at NBC News worked through the decision to start referring to the fighting in Iraq as a “civil war,” at a time when virtually no other major news outlets were.

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.