I hate the word “controversial.” It is a typical weasel word. It has its uses, to be sure, but its most common purpose is simply to highlight some issue that the writer is unwilling to make a stand on.
For example, see this LA Times article about a “controversial video” from a UCLA student. Let’s watch this “controversial video,” shall we?
The racially-charged rant against Asians — complete with “Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong” — isn’t called “racially charged” or “anti-Asian” in the headline. It’s called “controversial.” “Controversial” makes it sound as if there are, well, two sides (thus “Contr-“/against, “vers-“/side). On the one hand, a student made a ridiculous anti-Asian video complaining about their cell phone use in the library and manners. On the other hand,… what exactly? If even the maker of the video won’t defend it, there’s not much controversy, is there?
The overuse of “controversial,” particularly in the media, shows two of journalism’s worst characteristics — an unwillingness to state facts, and a continued allegiance to “he said, she said” balancing. Thus, global warming becomes “controversial,” despite overwhelming scientific evidence. The teaching of evolution becomes “controversial,” so we should teach both sides of the debate in classrooms.
(Note: I have a similar dispute with the word “row,” but this is mostly reserved to British publications)