“Extremist”. “Slut”. “Communist”. “Terrorist”. These are just a few of the labels that have infiltrated the often heated discussions in the media. Though short, these words are potent, shaping the perceptions and understandings of the audience. Labeling is often used in media to portray the subject either in a positive or negative light. If used effectively labeling can diminish the credibility of the subject or strengthen the credibility depending on the connected connotations. Labels build off of stereotypes that are persistent within society in order to convey a particular image or tone. They often deceive the audience into believing that the subject is as simple as a single name.
Such oversimplified labeling is often seen in political rhetoric. In this atmosphere, labels often distort and oversimplify what each politician stands for as well as their practices. Labels and names have been used accusingly in mediation of politics as well as by the politicians themselves so frequently that even terms such as ‘conservative” and “liberal” no longer hold a clear meaning, but rather one distorted by the tone of the discussion. These terms are no longer just used for political standpoints but now are used to evoke a sense of the person based on the stereotypes of the group as a whole, even if the particular person deviates from that particular group in some ways. A label makes it easier for the audience to overlook the attributes that might set the subject apart from the image that the mediator wants to evoke. With one well-chosen term, politicians and other mediators can build such a strong image, good or bad, in the minds of the audience that it will influence their opinions and decisions. The media is manipulating the audience’s opinions. In his Scholastic Update article “Political Labels: What’s In a Name?,” special correspondent for Newsweek and BBC and writer for The New York Times, William McGowan discussed how political labels have evolved since Mccarthyism to have even stronger evocations than ever before. He argues that today, labels as simple as “liberal” and “conservative” are enough to sway the following discussion.
An example of a derogatory label that effectively simplifies and evokes certain associations, is the name given by many critics to the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010”, “Obamacare”. This label associates the Health care act directly with President Obama. Many oppose the act because they believe that it gives the federal government too much power over personal health care. Politicians and media spokespeople who oppose the act effectively draw on this concern by using the “Obamacare” label, for it directly associates it with not just the the federal government, but the president himself. It oversimplifies the complicated system and depicts a health care system that is completely in the hands of Obama. Thus this label might continue to sway the public against the bill, for they might decide they do not like the act simply because they do not support Obama. With such a label, it becomes very difficult to consider simply the consequences directly from the bill without equating it with President Obama and everything he stands for, regardless if his other stances carry no weight in the health sphere. In his New York Times article, “Democrats Embrace Once Pejorative ‘Obamacare’ Tag,” New York Times reporter Peter Baker quotes Republican strategist Frank Luntz as saying “People want health care personalized, not politicized, and the phrase Obamacare is an effective way to communicate the politicization of health care.” Baker continues to explain how the Democrats are now trying to spin the term “Obamacare” in their favor, trying to adopt it themselves and associate it with more positive ideas, mainly focusing on the “care”.
It is important to consider the technique of labeling when consuming media. While it is easy to become desensitized to such techniques, even adopting the terms and labels in daily conversation, the audience does have the power to, if not immunize themselves, at the very least take precautions when consuming label-filled media. While it would be ideal for the media itself to replace labels with more concise descriptions, that seems less and less likely. Thus it falls upon the consumers to take the time to reflect on the media they are consuming and consider if there are labels used that are creating a possibly false or exaggerated image of the subject. It is also crucial for one to consider if that label-created image is influencing his/her own opinions and possibly actions. Inevitably, the best way to avoid being completely controlled by labels is to stay informed and consult media from a variety of sources.