Social Security Semantics, Continued

Earlier this week CJR Daily wrote about the war of words that has broken out over the terminology reporters are using to describe the investment accounts central to President Bush’s plans for a Social Security overhaul. So far the battle has been fought out between “private accounts” — the longtime favorite of investment account proponents — and “personal accounts” — the new favorite of investment account proponents. The plan’s proponents prefer “personal accounts” because polling has shown the public more receptive to those words than to “private accounts. ”

Over the last couple of days a third phrase — “individual accounts” — has emerged. In yesterday’s Washington Post Mike Allen labeled the accounts, “individual stock and bond accounts,” and today the New York Times’ David Rosenbaum used the term, “individual investment accounts.”

Earlier, we asked the AP’s David Espo, whose writing has reflected a shift from “private” to “personal” over the last two months, what inspired the switch. Espo told us that he was unaware of the change.

So we put the same questions to Allen and Rosenbaum.

Asked why he had chosen “individual,” Allen responded via email: “In writing about Social Security, we are trying to choose language that is precise and descriptive, and does not buy into loaded terms that may be preferred by one side or the other. My mission when I am choosing words is to serve the reader, by being accurate and neutral without being obtuse.”

Rosenbaum, who has used the “individual” phrase in the past, and also used “private” and “personal” in today’s article, told CJR Daily, that he doesn’t “consciously decide” which term to use. He said, “I don’t see any difference between private, personal, or individual,” and therefore uses them all. He added, “I’m sorry the White House doesn’t like the word “private” because it doesn’t poll well…[but] that’s just too bad.”

Rosenbaum also shared a lesson he learned from covering the Reagan presidency twenty years ago that he is carrying over to his coverage of today’s Social Security debate, “I don’t use ‘reform’ because I think ‘reform’ has a spin on it.” In writing about Social Security, Rosenbaum said he will stick to more “neutral” words, such as “change” or “revamp.”

Neither Espo nor Rosenbaum have discussed the matter with their editors and they’re unaware of any official policy.

However, as the Post’s interview with the President seemed to indicate, its reporters are actively discussing the question of language. In his email Allen wrote, “We hope to arrive at a consistent vocabulary like the one we use for abortion — ‘abortion opponent’ or ‘anti-abortion’ on one side and ‘abortion rights advocate’ or ‘abortion rights supporter’ on the other.”

Let’s hope there are discussions going on in newsrooms across the country about, as the Post’s Allen puts it, choosing words that “serve the reader, by being accurate and neutral without being obtuse.” For as George Orwell noted nearly 60 years ago, language is routinely conscripted by governments to “corrupt thought,” and we end up with a mass of euphemisms that “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.”

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.