Scare quotes as a tool for media bias

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When you see quotation marks around a single word or short phrase in a news story, what comes to mind? It's a signal that the writer of the story doesn't buy the phrase or word being used, and she doesn't want you to buy it either. It sends the reader a signal that they should think something is fishy.

(I can't think about this use of quotation marks without thinking of a Saturday Night Live character called Bennett Brauer -- played by Chris Farley -- who punctuated his remarks by making quote marks with his fingers. 'Well, maybe I'm not "the norm". I'm not "camera friendly". ')

Here's a bit from a good summary of the semantics of this use of quotation marks:

The use of quotation marks can be extended to cases which are not exactly direct quotations. Here is an example:
Linguists sometimes employ a technique they call "inverted reconstruction".

The phrase in quote marks is not a quotation from anyone in particular, but merely a term which is used by some people in this case, linguists. What the writer is doing here is distancing himself from the term in quotes. That is, he's saying "Look, that's what they call it. I'm not responsible for this term." In this case, there is no suggestion that the writer disapproves of the phrase in quotes, but very often there is a suggestion of disapproval:

The Institute for Personal Knowledge is now offering a course in "self-awareness exercises".

Once again, the writer's quotes mean "this is their term, not mine", but this time there is definitely a hint of a sneer: the writer is implying that, although the Institute may call their course "self-awareness exercises", what they're really offering to do is to take your money in exchange for a lot of hot air.

Quotation marks used in this way are informally called scare quotes. Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase from which you, the writer, wish to distance yourself because you consider that word or phrase to be odd or inappropriate for some reason. Possibly you regard it as too colloquial for formal writing; possibly you think it's unfamiliar or mysterious; possibly you consider it to be inaccurate or misleading; possibly you believe it's just plain wrong. Quite often scare quotes are used to express irony or sarcasm:

The Serbs are closing in on the "safe haven" of Goražde.

The point here is that the town has been officially declared a safe haven by the UN, whereas in fact, as the quote marks make clear, it is anything but safe.

Reuters and the BBC are renowned for using scare quotes to distance themselves from Western Civilization's War against Islamist Terrorism -- this for example was a BBC web headline when Saddam Hussein's sons were killed:

U.S. celebrates 'good' Iraq news

Here in Tulsa we saw extensive use of scare quotes in coverage of the District 4 City Council. For some unexplained reason, the Whirled insisted on referring to the Republican nominee as Jason "Eric" Gomez. The man's full name is, in fact, Jason Eric Gomez. This is how he is listed in voter registration records. But like a lot of people (including my dad), he is known by his middle name. There is nothing shifty or unusual about this practice, but the scare quotes suggest that an alias is being used, or perhaps he is some sort of eccentric or "colorful character", like Virginia "Blue Jeans" Jenner or Cowboy "Pink" Williams.

When I first met him, he was introduced to me as Eric Gomez, and I only recently learned that Eric was not his first name. He uses his middle name in his business, on his website (, on his campaign signs, and on the ballot. At one point I wondered if the Whirled was using that punctuation because that was the way Eric's name was to appear on the ballot. But the name on the ballot was Eric Gomez. (By the way, when you file for office, you get to pick how your name appears. Frequent candidate Virginia Jenner added "Blue Jeans" as her middle name on the ballot in later races, even though she is registered to vote as Dorothea Virginia Jenner. The two times I've run, I opted for my full first name, plus middle initial to differentiate myself from most of the other Michael Bateses in town, although I could have used Mike Bates.)

Note that the Whirled did not give the same treatment to Gomez's opponent, "Councilor" Thomas Lee "Tom" Baker. I do not know if this "decision" was made by City Hall reporter Pamela Jean "P.J." Lassek, or by "City Editor" Lewis "Wayne" Greene, or perhaps by Editorial Page "Editor" Kenneth W. "Ken" Neal. I just know the "newspaper" wasn't consistent in the application of whatever "style book rule" they used to justify "Jason 'Eric' Gomez."

You may think me silly to believe that this would make a difference in an election, but when a voter doesn't know much about the candidates or their stands on the issues, any minor thing may be enough to tip his decision one way or another. A voter can grasp at anything that would suggest one of the candidates is unreliable or just odd in some way. And in such a close race -- less than one vote per precinct -- it may have made the difference.

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So-called "scare quotes" are a useful rhetorical tool, put to use when you'd just as soon distance yourself from what's being said. Reuters, an international "news agency," has a reputation... Read More

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 14, 2004 12:00 AM.

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