Media's Social Security Semantics
[Read the Times’s response to this Action Alert.]
Facing significant opposition to its plan to privatize part of the Social Security program, the White House is pushing reporters and lawmakers to use the expression “personal accounts,” since polling data seems to indicate that “privatization” is an unpopular term with voters.
While it’s not unusual for politicians to try to spin the terminology used in debate, journalists should avoid changing word usage simply because some politicians think it will be to their advantage. There’s little doubt that “privatization” is a more accurate description of the White House plan, especially considering that the current Social Security system is already based on what are essentially “personal accounts”– your benefits depend on how much you personally have paid in, as the annual statements you get from the Social Security Administration indicate– rendering the Bush administration’s preferred terminology redundant and confusing. What is different about the accounts that Bush is proposing is not that they are personal, but that they will hold private-sector securities– in other words, that they will be privatized.
But some outlets endorse the notion that using any variation of the term “privatization” is politicizing the story. As Time magazine explained (1/10/05), “Because Democrats have given the term ‘privatization’ a negative tinge, advocates prefer to call it ‘personalization,’ emphasizing control and ownership rights.” NBC host Tim Russert said on Meet the Press (1/23/05), “The president is proposing personal or private accounts, the vocabulary differs according to the ideology or the party using it.”
But the term “privatization” was for years embraced by its proponents as an accurate description of their position. The Cato Institute, an influential pro-privatization Beltway think tank, called its program the “Project on Social Security Privatization” before re-naming it “Project on Social Security Choice” in 2002 (New York Times, 10/6/02). That change was attributed to Republican lawmakers who wanted to avoid using an unpopular term to describe their policy.
This semantic debate is no accident. As the Washington Post reported (1/23/05), “Republican officials have begun calling journalists to complain about references to ‘private accounts,’ even though Bush called them that three times in a speech last fall.”
One would hope that in a debate as important as this one, reporters would resist this GOP spin. But the White House may be having some success: Carl Cameron of Fox News, in a news conference question to George W. Bush (1/26/05), made reference to “those who opt into a potential private account”– before quickly correcting himself to say “personal account.”
The Associated Press has also shown evidence of adopting the GOP’s semantics; as CJR Daily pointed out (1/25/05), last year reporter David Espo used the phrase “private accounts” fifteen times in Social Security articles, while referring to the accounts as “personal” only once (10/17/04, 12/6/04, 12/7/04). But this year, “private accounts” has nearly disappeared from his vocabulary: A Nexis search of his reports on Social Security through January 26 turn up 16 references to “personal” accounts and only two to “private” accounts (outside of direct quotes).
Aside from echoing Republican spin, this semantic shift can muddle the story. In one recent report (1/24/05), for example, Espo wrote that the AARP “released a nationwide poll today indicating deep public skepticism about President Bush’s plan for personal accounts.” But one paragraph later, he explained that AARP’s poll asked about private, not personal accounts.
The New York Times similarly confused the AARP poll; a January 25 article on the Social Security debate, which made three references to “personal” accounts and only one reference to “private investment” accounts, reported that “the AARP released a poll showing little public support for personal accounts once the costs and tradeoffs involved in establishing them are made clear.” By changing the terminology of the poll, the Times and the AP added extra layers of confusion and inaccuracy to what should be a fairly straight-forward story.
Ask the Associated Press and the New York Times to use the more accurate expression “private accounts” when reporting on the White House’s Social Security privatization plan. Tell them you think it is important that they resist GOP pressure to change the language they use when reporting on this story.
Phone: (212) 621-1500
New York Times
Daniel Okrent, Public Editor
Phone: (212) 556-7652
As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc firstname.lastname@example.org with your correspondence.