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'Dog Whistles' Sending Messages You May Not Hear

Dec 9, 2016

There’s an interesting term popping up in media reports lately: dog whistle.

It's a metaphor for talking in a way that a small group of people hear one that is hidden below the surface message, said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

“The intended audience gets a message meaning one thing, while the rest of the audience sees and hears something else,” she said.

“…It’s the same way that a dog hears a dog whistle, but the humans can’t hear the dog whistle.”

Journalists are using the term a lot in cable TV media discussions, but also in stories. This past weekend, two different stories in the Sunday New York Times referenced ‘dog whistle’:  

One mentioned it when describing President-elect Donald Trump’s flattering descriptions of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, saying it was a dog whistle to white supremacists who might favor Putin’s ideology.

Another was a story about teenagers – and how they communicate messages to one another – but not the older generation.

McBride said the term isn’t talking about short-hand stereotypes that politicians also use to define people or things.

“Short-hand terms are often coded, euphemistic terms. For instance ‘blue collar’ usually means white people without college education, while ‘urban’ often means poor and African American,” she said.

Some media such as conservative political blog Red State say ‘dog whistle’ is a liberal media term to slander conservative ideas. McBride said Red State has a point.

“It’s not a partisan concept at all,” she said. “But the only way that we are talking about dog whistles right now is to discuss conservative messaging.”

In fact, politicians from both major parties are known for using dog whistles in their campaigns. The most famous involves former President Richard Nixon. The Republican used the term "law and order" was a well-documented way to separate himself from the segregationist, George Wallace, but still speak to his followers.

And Democratic President Bill Clinton used the term "a new generation of Democrats" and "welfare to work" to speak to voters who believed that social safety net had become a little too cushy, McBride said.

And in the late 1980s, then Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush used the term "weekend passes" to reference the story of convicted murderer Willie Horton who was out on a weekend pass when he went off a violent crime spree as a way of speaking directly to people who were fearful of black criminals.

McBride, said dog whistles aren’t always so political.

The car maker Subaru famously created an advertising campaign in the targeting lesbian buyers. In the 1990s, the age of “don't ask, don't tell”, one ad had the car at the top, two women at the bottom, and text that said:  “It loves camping, dogs and long-term commitment, too bad it's only a car. “

Another ad included images of cars with cheeky personalized license plates making reference to a gay TV cult icon and a famous gay resort town.

“These were ways of signaling consumers that most people didn’t notice,” McBride said. “But if you were part of the gay and lesbian community, you knew that ad was meant for you.”