Journalism and Non-Literal Communication


Pseud’s recent post about Sharyl Attkisson fact-checking Trump’s passing remarks about McCain raises an interesting dilemma for journalists. How do you report on non-literal statements?

As I said in my comment there, I believe Trump was clearly being sarcastic when he said, ”[McCain] is a war hero because he was captured.” The implication, as evidenced by surrounding remarks, was that McCain is not a war hero because accidental suffering does not make one a hero. (That’s not to say Trump is correct or that he shouldn’t have followed the comment by acknowledging that McCain served with honor, at least. But that’s a discussion for other threads.)

Sarcasm and non-literal language are common forms of communication in modern Western societies. What are some guidelines for reporting such statements? It is easy to mistake tone and context, so to miss sarcasm or perceive it where it is not.

What other kinds of non-literal or even non-verbal communication should reporters generally mention or pointedly avoid?

Tone is often important. But can it be reported on somewhat objectively? What about body language?

Published in Culture, General, Journalism
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  1. user_2505 Contributor

    Good question, Aaron, and a tough one. Tone, posture, and facial expressions are real information that can strongly affect how we perceive a public statement, but they’re damn hard to quantify and easy to dismiss.

    On paper, Barack Obama’s 2007 offhand remark at a debate–“Hillary, you’re likable enough”–doesn’t convey any of the icy condescension of the actual moment. To be fair, that’s also true of bad moments like Bush’s initial minutes after hearing about the World Trade Center crashes. On paper, “the President sat silently, not wishing to interrupt” doesn’t convey any of the visual or emotional shock of seeing the video clip, knowing what we know now.

    • #1
  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Member
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    In my view, the correct way for the Post to have reported it would be with the words, “by intimating that McCain was not a war hero because he was captured by the North Vietnamese,” not “saying.” If you say someone said something, in journalism, it should be exactly what he said, and as Atkinsson pointed out, he did say, “He is a war hero” in between saying he wasn’t.

    What they wrote was:

    He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. Sarcastically, Trump quipped, “He’s a war hero because he was captured.” Then, he added, “I like people that weren’t captured.”

    I agree that they should have provided the full quote. I also agree that clearly the words were sarcastic, but had they provided the full quote, ending with ”I like people who weren’t captured,” any native-English reader would have fully understood the tone, and then they wouldn’t have been obliged to editorialize with the word “Sarcastically.”

    Atkisson is also engaged in distortion, given that she left out the ”I like people who weren’t captured” line … which is key to interpreting how he intended it to sound.

    • #2
  3. EJHill Podcaster

    I don’t think journalists should try to assign the mantle of sarcasm to a comment. That affords an excuse for something as stupid as Trump’s remarks about John McCain.

    • #3
  4. user_1065645 Member

    It seems most Rico discussion about Trump focus on his politics and not his words.

    Regardless of my opinion about McCain, and all things being equal: I heard Trumps words and was disgusted by them.

    • #4
  5. Percival Thatcher

    It seems to violate some principle I cannot name to spend more effort thinking about what Trump said than he spent saying it.

    Calling the Donald a loose cannon is an insult to unsecured artillery.

    • #5
  6. Eric Hines Inactive
    Eric Hines

    I don’t cut journalists much slack in this sort of thing.  For one thing, they too often simply “report” what other journalists have said or written, rather than doing their own work, or at least vetting the work they’re “quoting.”  With that, they’re just rumor mongering.  Sally Kohn provided an example of this in her writings repeating Rolling Stone‘s article that described a manufactured rape story as though it were true.  At the outset of the RS article, the editors had written that they had deliberately not vetted their source’s tale out of claimed sensitivity to her strait and her privacy.  When Kohn was taken to task for her repeating these inaccuracies, she asked with a straight face whether she was expected to vet her sources.

    Also, words are journalist’s stock in trade.  Those that are present are fully capable of recognizing sarcasm, irony, straight speech, bad jokes, and so on.  Misrepresenting those things as a matter of routine are deliberate acts, not misunderstandings.

    Eric Hines

    • #6
  7. Aaron Miller Inactive
    Aaron Miller

    As usual, the example I offered is apparently more interesting than the dilemma it was meant to demonstrate.

    • #7
  8. user_1065645 Member

    Aaron, to your question, I think most of us on Rico have such little faith in most fish wraps that expecting unbiased reporting and journalistic integrity feels like a fools errand.

    • #8
  9. Larry3435 Inactive

    McCain and Trump aside, our society does tend to confuse suffering and heroism.  I remember, for example, when Leon Klinghoffer was celebrated as a “hero” after he was murdered by terrorists who hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro.  Several members of Congress, including Senator D’Amato, proposed awarding Klinghoffer the Medal of Honor.

    Look, Klinghoffer was murdered by brutal terrorists, in a time before that was a common occurrence.  My heart goes out to him and his family.  But he was not a “hero.”  He was an innocent, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It would not be amiss, I think, if we were all to be a little more careful about how we throw around the word “hero.”  And don’t even get me started on how we use the word “patriotism.”

    • #9
  10. Howellis Inactive

    If I understand the question correctly, my preference is for journalists to report the statement along with additional information if necessary so that the intended meaning is accurately conveyed.

    Although it’s not a journalistic example, in the film “My Cousin Vinny” Billy Gambini, played by Ralph Macchio, is asked by Sheriff Farley, “Is that when you shot the clerk?” To which he answers, incredulously, “I shot the clerk?” “I shot the clerk?” with a strong emphasis on the “I.”

    Later in court, Sheriff Farley repeats the question and answer in a monotone, conveying none of the incredulousness or questioning tone, and thus the jury can interpret the answer as a confession, simply, “I shot the clerk.”

    Similarly, in a news report of a statement by any person it is only fair to try to convey his actual meaning, including whether the statement was made in a joking tone, or sarcastically (to mean its opposite), with an accompanying wink,  etc. Otherwise, false meanings are easily conveyed.

    • #10
  11. The Cloaked Gaijin Member
    The Cloaked Gaijin

    “(John McCain) pointed to his failings often, noting that he finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy and dismissing descriptions of ‘heroism’ with the line that it didn’t take much talent or heroism to ‘intercept a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile with my own airplane.’  He called people ‘jerks’ or worse, but always with affection.” — Elaine S. Povich, John Mccain: A Biography

    However, Trump should be careful in implying that McCain doesn’t fight for veterans, veteran services, or military funding.  He better have all of his facts perfectly straight and in order to make such accusations.

    • #11
  12. The Cloaked Gaijin Member
    The Cloaked Gaijin

    Aaron Miller:…I believe Trump was clearly being sarcastic

    Maybe in the future we can have presidential candidates that don’t open their mouths in the same way that Supreme Court nominees are not allowed to say anything either.

    Not opening one’s mouth seems to be the strategy of Hillary Clinton and the Chamber of Commerce glove-puppet candidates.

    • #12
  13. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Member
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Aaron Miller:As usual, the example I offered is apparently more interesting than the dilemma it was meant to demonstrate.

    That’s partly because it’s easier to debate a specific example than to figure out how you’d create ethical guidelines for reporting on non-literal statements. So much human judgment (of a kind we only poorly understand) goes into figuring out whether a comment is meant literally or figuratively that I’m not sure it would be possible to write a set of rules for gauging this — at least, not one that would be shorter than the sum of the experience of an adult reader or writer. This is a relatively easy case, too, because the incident was filmed; he’s a well-known personality; he’s speaking English as his first language; and he’s talking about another well-known figure.

    I’ve really struggled when trying to report on comments made by Turkish politicians — knowing that a strict and literal translation won’t convey what I know to be several other possible interpretations of the comment in question, and also knowing that I don’t know enough to know if those are all the possible interpretations.

    • #13
  14. kmtanner Inactive

    Communication is correct only accidentally

    • #14
  15. Ricochet Coolidge

    It didn’t strike me as sarcastic.  What it struck me as was shtick.  He was in his persona, and that is what came out of him.  I don’t know if I believe that Trump believes anything he says.  He loved the Clintons, but now he calls Hillary the worst sec of state ever.  That sounds like the Trump shtick.  Does he believe it?  I don’t know.  The man is a clown.  He is a cartoon parody of himself.

    • #15
  16. Pseudodionysius Inactive

    Trump is playing Terry Tate, Oval Office Linebacker.

    You Kill The Morning Joe, You Make Some Moe

    • #16
  17. Ball Diamond Ball Member
    Ball Diamond Ball

    Pseudodionysius:Trump is playing Terry Tate, Oval Office Linebacker.

    You Kill The Morning Joe, You Make Some Moe

    Now that’s funny, he said.

    • #17
  18. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy

    Pseudodionysius:Trump is playing Terry Tate, Oval Office Linebacker.

    You Kill The Morning Joe, You Make Some Moe

    I think he was channeling another character played by a Terry.


    • #18
  19. Flyondawall Inactive


    Sub title : McCain’s war record…lots of seemingly informed comments. Who to believe?

    • #19
  20. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy


    Sub title : McCain’s war record…lots of seemingly informed comments. Who to believe?

    No Infowars links available?

    • #20
  21. Ball Diamond Ball Member
    Ball Diamond Ball


    Sub title : McCain’s war record…lots of seemingly informed comments. Who to believe?

    You believe the guy who rotted in a primitive communist prison, and you thank him.  Next question?

    • #21
  22. kmtanner Inactive

    It would have been nice to see some real competition for Hillary.

    • #22
  23. The Cloaked Gaijin Member
    The Cloaked Gaijin

    National Review Trump critic Kevin Williamson got in trouble a few months or few years ago for saying on Twitter that women who have abortions should be hanged.  I don’t think he was completely serious though, but now that’s the quote everyone will always use against him.

    • #23
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