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The power of words

Words have no legs, yet they walk.
Mali proverb (Bambara people)

I couldn’t write about this yesterday. Today I have a need to write about it. Something has happened which has taken me back in time – a flashback of sorts – to a morning when I was sitting in bed after coping with a devastating personal crisis. I was exhausted. I hadn’t been sleeping. So many people were relying on me and I had to get my act together. Someone handed me a newspaper. I read a headline. It was like someone had hit me on the head. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The words on that page turned a hideous situation into a nightmare. Those few words affected me deeply and yesterday it was happening again. This time the words when I read them were on a screen and not on paper. The feeling was the same – one of utter disgust! This time the words before me were not directly connected to my immediate family but they were about members of my extended family who I cared about and loved.

On November 17, 1847, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the following:

Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become, in the hands of one who knows how to combine them!
The power of words

Yesterday, when I heard the news of Leslie’s death I did what has become a new habit for me when I want to check something in the news – I went to my regular newspaper web site, Stuff. The first headline I read relating to the accident was:

Woman killed on jet ski near Twizel
09 January 2006

Later in the day I was greeted by this headline on the same site:

Husband kills wife in jet ski collision
09 January 2006

Then today I was greeted with:

Man’s bid to save wife fails
10 January 2006

All three headlines related to the same event; the accident which claimed Leslie’s life. All three headlines relayed the writer’s interpretation of bits of information they had received about an event that had happened out there on that lake in the South Island. The messages I received from each report were completely different. As for the headlines – well?????

You can see from the example above how words can be used to evoke completely different emotions and a completely different understanding of a situation. Depending on the interpretation you take from what you read you use this information to form your own judgements about what happened. This then gets embedded into our memories. We continue to absorb all the post event information that we are exposed to. We take on board a bit of this and a bit of that. Eventually we have a memory which we believe to be true. Even if the information upon which it was based was incorrect. This is what every single person does. This is how the wrong information gets perpetuated. This is how rumours start. This is how lives get destroyed. This hurts people. Where is the social responsibility of the writers in all of this?

Communicating information, which in one way or another affects people’s lives, is a huge responsibility. A simple inappropriately worded message can have dire consequences. I wish those wordsmiths we rely on to convey information in the form of ‘News’ would remember this. Why don’t they have consciences? Why do they have to sensationalise everything? Where do ethics and professionalism fit in here?

As a teacher I abide by these very core principles of professionalism and they are non-negotiables for me in my practice. We are all dealing with the lives of fellow human beings. I wish we all respected each other and valued each other in a way that reflected this.

In a conversation with my aunt this evening I heard about another aspect of this scenario. She told me how various newspaper reporters were phoning the house for information, and one reporter even asked if they would release a photo of Leslie to put in the paper. What made me feel even sicker was that my cousin had to read these stories when he is currently reliving the reality of what happened over and over again. This seems so cruel.

I’ll leave it up to you to work out which headline made me physically ill. The article associated with it didn’t even mention that they were reporting on an ‘accident’! sadly they happen every day.

I now know why I stopped buying the newspaper. I don’t need to be bombarded with this every morning.

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