February 22, 2023


I am tired of both politicians and journalists speaking of proposed law changes as “reform.” GOP lawmakers want to “reform” Social Security, by which they mean reduce benefits or eliminate the program entirely. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to “reform” Israel’s judiciary, by which he means stripping power from the courts and giving more power to the Knesset, thus eliminating an important check on legislative and administrative overreach.

“Reform” is a righteous-sounding term that gives a gloss of respectability to any policy to which it is attached. But not only can the word be used to obscure one’s motives but it can introduce ambiguity and confusion into political discourse. Does “reforming” the police mean transferring police duties to non-police personnel or does it mean giving police more money and equipment to help them do their job more efficiently?

We are unlikely to dissuade politicians from using “reform” to bolster support for their proposals, but we can encourage journalists to reform how they speak and write about the politician’s “reform.” Journalists should not just parrot the propaganda of politicians. They can refer to “changes” or they can be more specific about the changes being promoted. Replacing “reform of” with “changes to” is not more specific, but at least it replaces a positive-sounding locution with a more neutral one. In some cases, journalists can be more truthful without being more verbose—“gutting the judiciary” rather than “reforming the judiciary,” for example.

If journalists refuse to automatically repeat calls for “reform,” politicians may actually become less eager to use the term.

1 comment:

  1. On NPR this morning, proposed changes in Mexico likely to weaken election protections were referred to as “reforms.” A bit later, however, the changes were referred to as “so-called reforms.” That phrase is a good way for journalists to report on such proposals.


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