Warning signs: how our research was misrepresented in the news

Sign languages vary from one part of the world to the next, just as spoken languages do. Margaret Woods/Moore

Research needs to be presented carefully to not mislead the community. It’s worrying when information is taken out of context by the media for a news item that may only run for one day. But this is exactly what happened when the work of a team I’m part of was covered by two British newspapers.

For a linguist like myself, the sign languages of deaf communities are an inherently fascinating area of research. Sign languages are not codes for spoken languages, they have distinct vocabularies and grammars. They vary from one part of the world to the next, just as spoken languages do, because they are natural languages that have developed spontaneously where deaf people have come together to form communities.

There’s much misunderstanding about sign language and like any community, deaf people are sensitive to misinterpretations of their language and culture.

Recently, my deaf and hearing colleagues from the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London were contacted by a journalist from The Guardian about the British Sign Language Corpus Project. This is a major, ongoing project that I led with my colleague Kearsy Cormier. Its aim is to create a large, online collection of British Sign Language (BSL) data from a range of deaf signers across the United Kingdom, and track variation and change in BSL use.

One of the areas we investigate is change in the BSL lexicon. Like many sign languages, certain vocabulary items vary from one region to another, and this traditional regional variation appears to be changing.

There are many reasons for these changes. With the closure of central schools for deaf children, traditional patterns of language transmission have been altered. Deaf people are increasingly mobile, and travel has resulted in contact with others who use different dialects, or entirely different sign languages.

Political correctness has also had an impact with some signs deemed by some to be culturally insensitive because they appear to reflect unflattering stereotypes about the appearance or behaviour of minority groups.

Attitudes about this issue vary a great deal in deaf communities, and as the origin of many signs is unknown (sign languages don’t have a written tradition that records earlier usage), relationships between the form and meaning of many modern signs is often a matter of conjecture.

The aim of our project is to understand these changes in the context of language change in BSL as a whole, and to describe these processes as impartially as possible.

The BSL Corpus Project Team is especially keen to avoid culturally insensitive and simplistic reports about this issue, following unflattering portrayals of BSL in the British press, such as this 2004 story in The Telegraph.

We know that such reports have the potential to feed into negative perceptions of sign language in the wider community. They give the impression that these languages are little more than gesture and mime, and cause offence in the deaf community.

Sign languages have distinct vocabularies and grammars. Marie M./Flickr

So we were deeply disappointed when The Guardian story appeared with a focus on the very issue of “offensive” signs, despite our requests that they not revisit the matter following previous inaccurate media reports.

I use the word inaccurate intentionally as one part of the article was ill-researched and taken out of context, apparently to produce sensationalist material in total disregard of the actual research we’d conducted.

Aside from erasing my contribution as project director during 2008-2010, the Guardian also attributed findings that were not part of the project to us. It claimed that we have documented changes in the signs to refer to Jewish and gay people, and incorrectly reported our findings on signs to refer to countries such as India, Germany, France and Ireland.

There’s a very simple reason for these factual misrepresentations – this work is based on unpublished work by the project-linked doctoral student Rosemary Stamp. We didn’t discuss the findings with the journalist, we haven’t reported our data at conferences in this much detail, and we haven’t yet written up a journal article on the issue. Clearly the reporter got this information elsewhere, but the source for these claims is unclear – they certainly don’t come from the BSL Corpus Project team.

The story was picked up by The Daily Mail, which, despite being told the story was inaccurate when they contacted us, published an article with additional incorrect information.

We know that some people in the British deaf community have been upset by yet another insensitive portrayal of their language, and have moved quickly to make it clear that our research team was not responsible by publishing a response on our project website. Relationships of trust built up over many years between university researchers and the deaf community are at risk of being undermined.

But what we’re more taken aback by is the lack of care taken by the journalists involved.

As a whole, academics can find dealing with the media to be a rewarding and exciting process. But we worry that our work will be taken out of context and the long hours spent closely with our research will be reduced to an eye-catching headline.

These particular news stories got it wrong and they have the potential to contribute to, rather than overcome, the misunderstanding of a disadvantaged community and its language.