Policy Corner: What's really 'far left' or 'far right'?

We are noticing the use of the labels "left" and "right," or more to the point "far left" and "far right," in news copy lately, ours included. And we have to be mindful of it.

The terms are being used sometimes matter-of-factly, as if everybody knows their definition. It's obvious that such-and-such person is far right, isn't it? There's no question that another person leans very left, is there?

Maybe to some readers, it's clear from what a politician is saying or how the person has voted which way that person leans. But maybe it isn't. And that's where there's some danger.

The "far right" or "far left" people might not see themselves that way; maybe they think of themselves as moderate, or just conservative and not very so, or liberal but not extremely so.

In fact, politicians and others probably wouldn't say about themselves that they're "left-leaning" or "right-leaning." They would likely instead talk about the particular beliefs and political views they hold.

And that's what we should focus on in our reporting: the specifics. What is the person saying about a particular issue, or how is the person voting?

It gets difficult when we're talking about groups of people involved in a conflict or debate - those in Congress as an obvious example. We get to assuming that people in one group will always believe or vote one way. Or in any case, we need a way to describe different factions. But we've seen plenty of examples where people in one party don't always vote or campaign together on an issue.

In certain circumstances, the labels have a place and can help readers better understand a story or political figure, but we're very cautious about using them only in such circumstances. It follows the good advice not to generalize.

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