Loaded words

Words matter, as every journalist should know. But in a field that strives for objectivity, many words seem more innocent than they really are. We call these “loaded words,” and journalists should do their best to avoid them, or at least think twice before using them.

The Free Dictionary defines a loaded word as one “that carries additional emotional weight or significance—whether positive or negative—beyond its literal meaning.” Here’s an example from an exercise I often use when teach basic news writing.

In 2007, the governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, was critically injured in a highway accident, breaking multiple bones and requiring surgery. Given a fact sheet and assigned to make it into a news story, students write time after time, “Fortunately, the governor will survive.”

No doubt it was fortunate for Corzine; whether it was fortunate for New Jersey was a matter of opinion. (Corzine, who did survive, was not an especially popular governor.) And that’s the point: fortunately expressed an judgment, and though it was a benign one, that is not the reporter’s job. A better way to state the thought was the way The New York Times, from which the fact sheet was taken, did: Asked whether Mr. Corzine was lucky to be alive, Dr. Ostrum said: “Yes.”

As the Free Dictionary notes, words can be loaded in positive or negative ways. Let’s start with the positives. Here are two relatively simple examples from a first-semester international student last fall:

The Compost Project at Queens Botanical Garden deserves more attention from Flushing residents.

Deserves makes this sound like a sentence from an opinion piece, as if the writer were endorsing the project. The point of the story was that the project was not well known in the neighborhood and was seeking more attention. Two possible rewrites:

The Compost Project at Queens Botanical Garden wants to raise its profile among Flushing residents.

The Compost Project at Queens Botanical Garden is trying to spread its message to more Flushing residents.

From the same student:

Among all the supporters who contributed to the center, Dale Jones Burch is the most dedicated.

Who says Burch is the most dedicated? As written, it’s the author. And on what basis — number of hours volunteered, amount of money contributed? This conclusion needs to be attributed and supported.

A December graduate wrote:

Mayor Bill De Blasio has made a grand promise to “turn the tide” on homelessness with what the city describes as the “largest affordable housing plan ever.”

Grand has a number of definitions: large (like the French word from which it is derived), comprehensive, lavish, most important, even socially superior. But it can also mean “very good” or “wonderful” — which, again, expresses an opinion or judgment. A better choice might have been sweeping or ambitious.

Another story cited the NYU Furman Center, which advances research and debate on housing, neighborhoods and urban policy. Advance as a transitive verb means to make progress — another positive, and therefore one that suggests the writer approves of the Furman Center’s work. A less loaded verb would be conducts.

Now, for the negatives. From a recent alum, in a story about a shortage of housing for first-time buyers:

The private market provides too few homes that the lowest-income renters can afford.

The too few is borderline judgmental. I prefer to err on the side of objectivity and rewrite:

The private market doesn’t provide enough homes for the lowest-income renters looking to buy.

Cisco, Twitter and Netflix are a few such companies that conceal the hard stats but publish selective data on their websites under photos of diverse grinning employees.  

Conceal means to hide something, and in an age that touts transparency, it suggests the companies are deliberately keeping this information secret for shady purposes, as opposed to simply not making it public. Better:

Cisco, Twitter and Netflix are a few such companies that do not release the hard stats . . .

From another December graduate:

Wage growth in the U.S. has begun to accelerate, but excessive student debt and harm done by the Great Recession have delayed the capacity of millennials to form a household and buy a home.

Who says their debt is excessive? Their creditors would probably disagree. Instead, the writer might have said something more like high levels of student debt.

Speaking of excess:

Growing competition isn’t the only hurdle established streaming giants are facing. High content costs – including astronomical amounts for renewal of content and fees for exclusive agreements – poses a challenge for these companies to make money without raising subscription fees.

Here the problem word is astronomical — “extremely large,” though often implying too large, especially when applied to costs. The writer should have given an example of how high those costs might be and let the reader decide if they were astronomical.

From yet another recent graduate, writing a capstone on the “bamboo ceiling” limiting Asians’ managerial ambitions in tech companies:

Worst of all is eBay. While the company’s technical team is 63% Asian — a percentage surpassing all the other companies’ – only one-third of all managers in the company are Asians.

Worst of all expresses a judgment the writer definitely should avoid. A more neutral approach: The biggest disparity is at eBay.

Then there’s should:

Rising oil prices are pushing up the main index, which increased by 1.5 percent in February, but the core CPI should remain stable.

Who says they “should” (ought to) — you, the reporter? Yes, should can indicate “what is probable or expected,” according to Merriam-Webster, but it would be more neutral to say the core CPI is expected to remain stable. Better still, rewrite in active voice and attribute: economists say they expect the core CPI to remain stable.

In this example the “who says?” is a bit clearer:

But to climate activists like Eisenberg, the rate hikes seem to be primarily increasing returns to investors at a time of climate chaos, when resources should be going, instead, toward massive investments in renewable energy infrastructure. 

As I read it, everything after Eisenberg reflects what he told the writer, including where resources “should” be going. Turning the sentence around might make it even clearer:

But to climate activists like Eisenberg, who say resources should be going toward massive investments in renewable energy infrastructure, the rate hikes seem to be primarily increasing returns to investors. 

Disappointing was all but forbidden in my years at The New York Times, as in sentences like this one:

Though disappointing, these numbers are not worrying economists. 

“Who’s disappointed?” a masthead editor would thunder from on high, on the grounds that this wording implied The Times itself was disappointed in revenues or ticket sales or a sports team’s performance or whatever. Instead, tell who was disappointed — Economists said they were disappointed but not worried by these numbers — or find another neutral way of saying it, such as The numbers were below expectations.

From The Times’s Iowa primary coverage, here’s a way to write about disappointment that meets the standard:

Ms. Warren’s third-place showing was a disappointment for a candidate who was once a front-runner there with a political organization that was the envy of the field.


Sometimes a word is loaded by cultural baggage. On first reading, this sentence confused me:

Lanling Lin, 35, of Flushing, who visited the garden with her child on Saturday, said the Compost Program at the Garden is like propaganda.

When I asked the writer what it meant, she said the information the garden was giving out about the compost program was like information from the government — reliable and trustworthy, as such information is assumed to be in her country. To Americans, though, propaganda is anything but. In one online definition, it’s “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” So, to her potential audience here, the word was not only confusing but a strong negative. Similarly, anyone who’s been following the presidential campaign surely must have noticed that to Americans, socialist and communist are strongly loaded negatives; use them with extreme caution, and make sure you’re using them accurately.

A Times headline on Oct. 30 said:

What Could Go Wrong With Boris Johnson’s Scheme? Everything

As I wrote in American English for World Media: “In British English, scheme refers to any kind of plan—a new railway scheme, the government’s social welfare scheme. But to Americans, the word has a negative connotation, suggesting a plan to cheat or defraud. So when a CUNY student from Vietnam wrote, ‘IBM has not confirmed any specific layoff scheme,’ she would have been better off, for her audience, saying any specific layoff plan.”

Finally, there may be no more loaded phrase than loaded for bear — an idiom meaning prepared for anything, especially a confrontation, and maybe even seeking one out (as in a gun loaded for bear-hunting). This May 23 article in The Times originally said Trump arrived at a meeting “loaded for bear” — judiciously edited out a couple of hours later. If there’s one thing American journalists don’t need, it’s to give Trump more ammunition to accuse them of bias. And if there’s one thing they do need, it’s to think carefully about every word they use.

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