The New York Times Agrees That #WordsMatter - Define American

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The New York Times Agrees That #WordsMatter

Four tips for being more humane and accurate when writing about immigration.

On Tuesday, Define American asked the New York Times to consider using more accurate and less politically charged language in headlines and articles when describing people who are migrating to the US.

Yesterday, Caitlin Dickerson, National Immigration Reporter for the New York Times, responded in the paper’s Crossing the Border email newsletter:  

In all things, words matter, and the emotions they convey can be powerful [emphasis added]. For evidence, look no further than the opposing sides in our national debate over immigration, which seem to draw from entirely separate dictionaries when they describe the situation at the border. One person’s “refugee” is another one’s “illegal immigrant.” It’s often a gut-based evaluation in which political views shape language and vice versa.

Dickerson continues, addressing other terminology questions from readers, including our concern that the media is adopting the language of “crisis,” just as the administration and anti-immigrant groups hoped they would:

But now the questions are evolving. Should the situation with large numbers of people overwhelming Border Patrol stations be called a “crisis,” even if some of the chaos is self-imposed by the administration?

We pointed out this very issue earlier this week. While we generally agree with what Caitlin is saying, and with the transparency of Times immigration reporters discussing the challenges we face with language, we have some suggestions on how to be more humane and accurate when writing about immigration:

1. Lead with the facts of budget or policy requests, not political motivations. The Times accurately reports the administration’s ask in the story, but the headline sensationalizes the ask.

    • 5/2/19 White House Asks for $4.5 Billion to Cope With Wave of Migrants for More Detention Beds at Border

2. Avoid placing blame. The Department of Homeland Security has well-established alternatives to putting unaccompanied minors, migrant families, and asylum seekers in detention, including various levels of supervised and unsupervised release as their cases are being adjudicated. The “crunch” is from the administration’s actions, not necessarily driven by migrants themselves.

    • 4/22/19 ICE Faces Migrant Detention Crunch as Border Chaos Spills Into Interior of the Country Feds Hold More Asylum Seekers

3. Remember that we are talking about people, and largely about families. Use humanizing language rather than dissolving the individual stories into loaded collective nouns like “surge” or “wave.”

    • 4/16/19 Yuma Declares Emergency in Bid for Help Handling Surge in Migrants with Released Migrant Families

4. Similar to recent Associated Press recommendations on race, don’t be afraid to call out white supremacy and extremism. Headlines that referenced armed militias “detaining” migrants made the criminal activity of these racist paramilitary groups seem semi-official or even sanctioned. Some reports even implied the militias were helping Border Patrol. Call it what it is: racist criminal behavior.

    • 4/18/19 Militia in New Mexico Detains Assaults/Hijacks/Kidnaps/Grabs/Waylays Asylum Seekers at Gunpoint

We like how Dickerson puts it at the end of her note:

The challenge here is not that a few of the words that are used in the immigration debate are politically charged, but that the majority of them are. In light of that, one useful exercise might be to pause for a moment, wherever you stand in the debate, and switch out the terms you typically use for those of people who see things differently — not as a way to make your views more like theirs, but to more fully understand the space between them.

However, we hope that you keep our tips in mind as well. This is not a debate for migrants themselves. It is literally their lives on the line.

Find more information on immigration reporting and updates at Define American’s #WordsMatter campaign.

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