It’s Controversial — Guest Post by Kevin Groenhagen

It’s Controversial — Guest Post by Kevin Groenhagen

Let’s consider the word “controversial.” According to Merriam-Webster it is “of, relating to, or arousing controversy.” “Controversy” is defined as “a discussion marked especially by the expression of opposing views.”

The Online Etymology Dictionary says “controversy” comes “from Old French controversie or directly from Latin controversia, from controversus ‘turned in an opposite direction, disputed, turned against,’ from contra ‘against’ (see contra) + versus ‘turned toward or against,’ past participle of vertere ‘to turn,’ from PIE root *wer- (2) ‘to turn, bend.'”

I’ve been listening to National Public Radio and CNN a lot lately. It seems nearly impossible to listen to one of their news programs for an hour with hearing the word “controversial” at least once. I did a search of the word “controversial” on NPR’s website and found dozens of results, including stories with the following headlines:

  • After Controversy Over Condolence Calls, Can Trump And The White House Refocus?
  • Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra Confronts Controversy Over Right-Wing Guest Conductor
  • Athletes On The Track And The Slopes Are Pulled Into Trump Controversy
  • Betsy DeVos’ ‘School Choice’ Controversy; Historically Black Colleges And More
  • Amid Conspiracy Controversy, Hannity Takes A Vacation — And Vows To Return
  • The Russian Hacking Controversy: What We Do And Don’t Know
  • White House Defends Controversial Order On Immigration
  • Sen. Jeff Sessions Addresses Past Racism Controversy In Confirmation Hearing
  • North Carolina Lawmakers Fail To Repeal Controversial Bathroom Law

You may have noticed each of these headlines concerns Republican/conservative individuals, policies, or actions. Of course, given that Republicans currently control the White House and Congress, perhaps one would expect recent headlines such as these to be overwhelmingly about Republicans/conservatives rather than Democrats/liberals. However, I did a Google search of the words “Trump controversial” on December 31 found about 65,700,000 results. I did the same with the words “Obama controversial” and found about 33,000,000 results, including a story about his “tan suit controversy.” Trump had served as president for less than a year, while Obama had served as president for eight years, yet there were twice as many “controversial” results regarding Trump.

CNN and the New York Times reported that this year’s Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was “controversial.” However, they were reluctant to call that act, which a majority of Americans opposed and all but one Republican in Congress rejected, “controversial” in 2009 and 2010. Of course, PBS, CBS, Yahoo News, and many other media outlets labeled the Republican’s recently-passed tax bill “controversial.”

“Controversial” is an odd word for journalists to use. After all, any issue is, by definition, “controversial.” In fact, The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law explicitly instructs journalists to avoid the words “controversial” and “noncontroversial.” “All issues are controversial,” notes The AP Stylebook, which is considered the journalist’s bible. “A noncontroversial issue is impossible. A controversial issue is redundant.” Further, The AP Stylebook also instructs journalists to avoid the word “controversial,” saying it’s overused.

Remarkably, even the Associated Press ignores its own stylebook. For example, in a December 14 headline, the AP announced, “Republican tax bill drops controversial loan provisions.”

So why do journalists repeatedly use “controversial,” even though their own “bible” tells them to avoid the word. I believe they do so to discredit the individual or issue they label “controversial.” If you Google the words “avoid controversy,” you’ll find over a million results, including the following headlines:

  • “5 Ways to Avoid Controversy When Teaching About Religion”
  • “In an effort to avoid controversy, ESPN created it”
  • “NHL’s attempt to avoid political controversy misfires”
  • “Alcoholics Anonymous drops manuscript suit to avoid controversy”
  • “Fordham University falters in trying to avoid controversy”

Aren’t individuals and institutions conditioned to avoid controversy? And, if that is the case, aren’t we also conditioned to avoid “controversial” candidates and issues? Is it possible that when a reporter says, “Candidate A is controversial,” she is really saying, “Avoid Candidate A and vote for Candidate B”? When a reporter calls an issue “controversial,” is he really saying, “Oppose this issue”? Isn’t this a sneaky way for them to take sides and still maintain the appearance of objectivity?

I may be completely wrong about this and am open to other theories concerning why journalists use the word “controversial” when they are instructed to avoid that word. However, please listen closely when you hear a reporter use “controversial” regarding an individual or issue. Is the individual a conservative or liberal? Is the issue being promoted by conservatives or liberals? And what message are reporters trying to convey when they use the word?

Kevin Groenhagen is the author of The Tea Party Challenge: Understanding the Threat Posed by the Socialist Coalition.


  1. berserker

    A recent example is Jordan Peterson: a “controversial” professor.

  2. Sheri

    Reporters use the word because everyone else does. Journalists are not capable of independent thought, even at the national level. Remember “gravitas”? Many articles contain exact duplicates of articles sections found on other sites. It seems most journalists write at third grade level, do no research and are “out to save the world and make a difference”, not report news. The infection runs all the way to local news. I would guess if one introduced a new word of the day, one could have that word used 100 times by the end of the week, if not faster.

  3. Ken

    The press can and does make its own news out of nothing … and a proven means is to inject some element of sensationalism. For example, describing a debate in a local elected body as a routine effort at reaching some compromise, say on whether to leave only stop signs vs installing a new traffic lite at an intersection, is sure to induce prospective customers to not by the paper. Too boring. But frame that at as “controversial” debate over an “accident-ridden” intersection and so forth draws interest.

    Watching the mainstream media do this can be depressing given the overt manipulations done to induce a particular emotion regarding a subject (lately the emotion is disgust at Trump, and that’s being fueled by sensationalized discussions founded on nothing or next to nothing).

    Where one has a vested interest in a subject, or some opinion more than indifference, such manipulative behavior can be surprisingly hard to see, though one senses something is off.

    Thus, the satirical on-line rag dubbed as America’s Finest News Source, The Onion, is a good place to peruse as they do this sort of thing for fun all the time. Occasionally read a few of those for the technique and, believe it or not, you’ll be better able to spot the same technique in action on something serious.

    Here’s an example of nothing turned into a sensational story of dire consequences:

    Obviously fun (I hope its obvious….). Yet the same exact technique, often employing nothing but facts and truth, can be spun into a news story, or more often panel discussion, that exploits the general tone of grim corruption without really disclosing anything. It can be very effective at whipping up a broad group’s emotional response. One can see that this has occurred in shows like Watter’s World, when he interviews folks on the street who have strong opinions devoid of any factual basis in their own minds.

    So, to bolster one’s own intellectual rigor at sifting truth and truthful conclusions from emotional appeals and hubris, read, nay study(!), The Onion. Seriously.

    Sometimes The Onion turns the same technique upside down to poke fun at how we routinely perceive some things, for example:

    Study The Onion, then, when confronted with a news report or panel discussion on some topic that’s chock full of innuendo and emotional appeals, facts, but weak on conclusions … ask yourself, how might The Onion parody this?

    Humor is, sometimes, the most effective antidote or rebuttal.

  4. Gary in Erko

    I’ve noticed it too in many reports here in Australia, with the same aim – to disparage others’ point of view. For instance, those who opposed the demand to change in the Marriage Act “created the controversy”, not those who wanted to overturn the accepted tradition.

  5. The Leftist press (but I repeat myself) labels as “controversial” all that is contrary to the current version of The Narrative. It’s just that simple. They must have their daily (hourly?) two minutes hate against Emmanuel Goldstein.

  6. Jane

    I think this is an excellent point and people should take more notice of when the media is trying to steer readers in one direction or another by using language in this way. Recently in the news, “controversial” is used to describe anyone who disagrees with males who insert themselves into female facilities or sports. “Controversial” is now how they mark anyone guilty of wrong think as the bad guys.

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