Navigating the Partisanship of Language in Science Communication
Nicolyn Charlot, Edited by Brittany Gay and Taylor Scott
This document aims to support researchers in understanding how political ideology can play a role in science communications. Certain words and phrases are more frequently used by members of one party than others. This may be because one party is more interested in a particular subject, or because they prefer a certain term to describe a topic of mutual interest. It is important to be aware of highly partisan terminology when communicating findings to avoid inadvertently using language that alienates a particular party. Using words that are more politically neutral, when possible, is beneficial for connecting with a wider audience. However, it may occasionally be strategic to pique the interest of members of a specific party; using more partisan language may be useful in these situations.
We created a spreadsheet of over 700 words and phrases that appeared in RPC documents, such as fact sheets. Here, we explain how to use the spreadsheet, and highlight notably partisan and neutral words. Spreadsheet columns (e.g., Word or Phrase, # of Documents) are described below.
Word or Phrase
This column contains the key words and phrases that you may wish to use when writing.
# of Documents
This column depicts the number documents in which a word or phrase was used at least once (e.g., press releases, letters, social media posts, committee documents, state executive orders, etc.) within an approximately two-year time period (Summer 2018 – Summer 2020; see Dates for the exact time frame in which the word was searched).
This column represents the percentage of documents containing the relevant word or phrase that were written by Republicans (versus Democrats and occasionally Independents) who are current Federal officials, including legislators, committee members, and executive branch officials. The percentage does not include documents written by non-partisan officials, organizations, or sources (e.g., the Department of Justice). Please keep the following limitations in mind when using this spreadsheet:
The Percentage Republican number does not account for the actual number of Republicans who used the term – a single Republican could have used the term 20 times, or 20 different Republicans could have used the term once.
The spreadsheet cannot contextualize each word or phrase, so we cannot tell whether parties are using a term frequently because they support the idea or reject it.
This spreadsheet does not account for the fact that Republicans tend to have fewer communications overall (see Pew Institutes), and that there were more Democrats in office during the window in which we examined these words and phrases. Therefore, findings will generally suggest that Democrats use terms more often than Republicans; because of this, we interpret the median term usage to be closer to 40% than 50% (that is, we consider terms around 40% to be relatively neutral).
Category and secondary category
The Category column will allow you to easily search for words most relevant to your topic area, and you can use the Secondary Category column to find words that fit within more than one category (e.g., “Maternal” health is in the Health category and Family secondary category). Below we describe key categories and highlight some compelling findings within those categories, which may help you when writing for a legislative audience.
Buzzwords.The words within this category can easily be applied to any topic about which you are writing. Republicans generally favor words related to individualism and personal freedoms (e.g., free will, liberty, self-reliance, freedom), whereas Democrats tend to use more collectivistic terms (e.g., community, outreach, grassroots). When writing on any subject, this category is worth exploring, as some common words and phrases are more partisan than you might expect (e.g., urge support is used more by Democrats, and relationships is used more by Republicans). Finding neutral words (e.g., taxpayer, collaboration) can help you connect with readers.
Health. This category is particularly useful for identifying specific keywords for health topics of interest within each party. For example, Republicans are particularly interested in abortion, veterans’ healthcare, and telehealth, while Democrats are more focused on mental health, children’s health, and health care education. One should note that although technical, practice, or research terms are used more often by Democrats (e.g., trauma, stressors, support group), there are also many truly neutral terms available for you to use (e.g., heal, screening, disease, barrier, implementation).
Justice. This category can be used to gain a deeper understanding of values held by Republicans and Democrats in the context of justice. For example, many terms often used by Republicans relate to freedom, individual rights, and responsibility (e.g., defending freedom, individual rights, duty to intervene), while those used by Democrats are more relevant to collective rights and equality (e.g., civil rights, equality, equity). Democrats are also more vocal about subjects related to police reform (e.g., body cameras, use of force, qualified immunity) than Republicans, which is why highlighting areas of common ground (e.g., surveillance, justice reform, prisons, police unions) is important.
Victimization. Words in this category can be used to gain insight into how expressions reflecting similar concepts may be used to different extents by each party. Terms often used by Republicans are related to human trafficking (e.g., sex trafficking, human trafficking), which suggests this is an area of particular interest for this party. Republicans also tend to use terms related to minors and untested rape kits more often than Democrats. Conversely, Democrats tend to talk about all other forms of violence more than Republicans (e.g., physical abuse, stalking, assault, violence, maltreatment). Additionally, note that some terms with relatively similar meanings differ in their partisanship (e.g., domestic violence is more neutral than dating violence, which is more neutral than gender-based violence). When writing about this topic, try to use relatively neutral words (e.g., exploitation, force, victims) and address topics that that appeal to both parties (e.g., if discussing gender-based violence, try to relate it to trafficking).
Workers' Rights. Terms most frequently used by Republicans tend to focus on how work and employment relates to business and job growth (e.g., added jobs, job creators). Meanwhile, terms used more frequently by Democrats are often focused on the workers themselves (e.g., equal pay, unsafe work). Democrats also mention topics related to increasing wages (e.g., living wages, fair wages, minimum wage) more often than Republicans. When writing a piece related to work and employment, you may consider tying in information on how proposed solutions will help businesses as well as individual workers.
Using the spreadsheet
Ultimately, the spreadsheet can give us an approximate idea of how frequently a word or phrase is used by Republicans and Democrats, but there are limitations in what the numbers represent, so use the spreadsheet with the caveats in mind. You can sort the spreadsheet by using the arrow at the top of each column, and selecting “Sort A - Z” or “Sort Z - A.” We recommend sorting the spreadsheet by Percentage Republican, then sorting by Category and/or Secondary Category so you can easily see which words are most frequently used by the relevant party within each category. Please let us know if you would like us to look up a certain term for you.
As you explore the spreadsheet, you may notice that certain themes begin to emerge. Below are some tables of particularly interesting results. Words primarily used by Democrats are highlighted in blue, those used by Republicans are highlighted in red, and neutral terms are highlighted in white.
 Other categories included in the spreadsheet are Food Insecurity, Substance Use, and Other.