Some words lose their force of meaning through overuse in circumstances that do not necessarily warrant them. Such is the case with ‘controversial,’ which news reporters increasingly deploy without any justification.
To be controversial is not a particularly extreme state; it merely entails the causing of debate or dispute surrounding a subject. Yet, many reporters are quick to label events, decisions and people as controversial without bothering to explain why.
Sustainable Calgary is hailing the city’s controversial new Plan It Calgary report. It proposes big changes to city residential development to accommodate another 1.3 million people in the next 60 years. Executive Director Noel Keough says the report is a great start to what should be smarter development in Calgary. He says for years, thousands of citizens have been calling for a stricter, higher-density policy to reduce urban sprawl. As a result, he says Council needs to listen to research and feedback that all point towards transit-oriented development, instead of developers who point towards market demand. However, Keough calls the plan “a bare minimum.”
Despite the claim of controversy, there seems to be no debate whatsoever; the city council, the non-profit organization (Sustainable Calgary) and even thousands of citizens all appear to be in agreement. There is a hint that developers may have other priorities, but no suggestion that this has led to any dispute.
Other instances miss the word’s meaning altogether. On the same day, the Vancouver Sun carried a story with the headline, “North Vancouver school at heart of a controversial debate.” One would certainly hope that a debate involved controversy—or it wouldn’t be a debate at all.