University of Bologna, founded 1088/Gaspa, Flickr

Recently, I looked at some words that no longer earn their keep (liberal, conservative, and fundamentalist). Essentially, they mean whatever the user wants them to mean—to such an extent that there is no shared meaning. If the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Dalai Lama can both be termed “fundamentalist,” what is the word doing in a literate sentence anyway?

Another insidious type of word we encounter in online media means something quite specific—but not at all what we expect. Here are three such recent coinages:

1. Academic justice. Does that mean giving proper credit to a junior academic for original ideas? Not at all. It achieved fame in an op-ed by student Sandra Y. L. Korn in the Harvard Crimson, titled “Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice”:

Yet the liberal obsession with “academic freedom” seems a bit misplaced to me. After all, no one ever has “full freedom” in research and publication. Which research proposals receive funding and what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities. The words used to articulate a research question can have implications for its outcome. No academic question is ever “free” from political realities. If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?

Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

Whoa! Doctrines like that are a return to the days before universities, over a thousand years ago. Whatever a community saw as oppression was not permitted there. Research demonstrating the opposite of what the community believed (thus justifying the oppression) would certainly not be permitted. Fearing the risk, people didn’t do much actual research; they just repeated approved opinions. It might not have been quite fair to call the period the Dark Ages, but maybe we can sort of see why that name stuck.

2. Accountability journalism. No, this doesn’t mean that reporters stalking a politician’s motel room, hoping for a story, are viewed as, well, stalkers. Maybe it should mean that. But it doesn’t. At Associated Press it meant

scrapping the stonefaced approach to journalism that accepts politicians’ statements at face value and offers equal treatment to all sides of an argument. Instead, reporters are encouraged to throw away the weasel words and call it like they see it when they think public officials have revealed themselves as phonies or flip-floppers.

In practice, it has often meant open instead of barely concealed partisanship. Increasingly, media refuse to cover both sides of an issue—say, climate change—or even to allow dissenting comments because they claim to already know who is right on the facts. This stance is, of course, a different matter from taking an editorial position or covering news from a specific angle; it amounts to turning news stories into straightforward advocacy accompanied by personal anecdotes, anecdotes often chosen to demonstrate faith.

Meanwhile, issues like climate change turned out not to be nearly as straightforward as the journo–zealots thought. Exchanging news reporting for advocacy means that fewer journalists than otherwise are in any position to keep people informed about the increasingly complex picture. That trend has probably encouraged many people to let their subscriptions to former mainstream media lapse, deepening the financial hole (see also “Are traditional media dying? Who will they take down with them?”).

3. Fact checking. Most of us would think fact checking means stuff like not telling the world that Ryan Lanza was the Sandy Hook mass murderer (it was actually his brother). As it happens, the word currently means awarding public figures, especially politicians, “Truth-o-Meter” readings, “Pinocchios” or any similar scheme, to alert the public to how substantial the medium thinks their claims are. At one time, media simply offered editorials giving the house opinion (in case you hadn’t guessed) and let readers decide whether employment, for example, is up, down, or sideways.

The problem with fact checking is, as one journalism prof put it, “It’s hard to establish something in a way that no one can disagree with.” Employment, noted above, provides a useful example. When the job market is really bad, many unemployed people stop looking for work. They then cease to be technically unemployed. Politicians are going to spin that outcome in different ways, but the job market is still really bad. Awarding Truth-o-Meter readings and Pinocchios is just a way of expressing partisanship on the question while pretending to objectively assess facts.

The real problem with all these shady shades of meaning is that the people involved think they have a permanent monopoly on the right view of a question. I’d say that’s narrow dogmatism— but they have changed the meaning of that phrase too. It now means the views of people who doubt their monopoly on truth.



Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...