As I’ve discussed before, I’ve been rethinking my ideas about the publication of graphic photographs of natural disaster aftermaths. The devastating earthquake in Haiti this month has raised the issue again, as photos of dead bodies have made it to the print and virtual front pages of most major news organizations. In the last month, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, NPR’s Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, and newly appointed LA Times Readers’ Representative Deidre Edgar have all written columns about graphic images in their publications, addressing some of the complex questions that the use of such photos raises.

Most of the ombuds approve of their publications’ use of graphic photos of dead people, though Shepard’s column is devoted to one particular image featured on NPR’s home page that she thinks lacked the context necessary to make it editorially useful. Overall, the feeling among people who think full time about journalism seems to be that the enormity of the earthquake’s devastation could not be communicated without graphic photos.

I think it’s almost definitely true that the enormity of the earthquake’s devastation could not be communicated in the current media environment without graphic photos (though I do sometimes wonder if we undervalue the power of language to communicate tragedy). But one question that none of the ombuds addressed was whether there are problematic messages communicated by the photos that might outweigh the imperative to communicate this specific story to its fullest. I wonder if it’s possible that these images, while helping us wrap our minds around the earthquake and its impact on a poor and historically disadvantaged nation, could imperil our broader understanding of Haiti or its people.

One of the most troubling elements of graphic photographs of distant tragedies is inadvertently emphasized in Alexander’s January 24 Post column, which explains almost in passing that some newspapers (no mention of whether the Post was among them) “shy from running explicit photos of deaths in their circulation area because many readers may be connected to the deceased.” Alexander goes on, “In the case of Haiti, [director of the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University Terry] Eiler said, ‘Distance allows some to feel as if it’s happening away from us.’ ” The idea that such images  are more likely to be used when the reader feels distance from the subjects lends credence to critiques that graphic depictions of death create (or exacerbate) a sense of “otherness” about the victims they portray. If audiences are only exposed to photos of dead bodies when the people pictured can be classified as somehow “different” (geographically, racially or socioeconomically) from the majority of the publication’s readership, then the photos themselves become a marker of difference. They might actually create emotional distance from victims, even as they accentuate the visceral horror of the event they are representing.*

Hoyt’s January 23 New York Times column includes a photo editor’s assertion that the paper would publish similarly gruesome photos of a natural disaster in the U.S. if it could obtain the photos. Hoyt, citing Kenneth Irby, the head of the visual journalism center at the Poynter Institute, points out that U.S. officials are quick to cordon off the scenes of disasters, keeping photojournalists out. So even a publication that treated domestic and international disasters with similar sensibilities would likely create the appearance of difference by publishing more, and more graphic, photos of dead people from distant disasters than from nearby ones. From the audience’s perspective, the media organizations have still established a division between people who are allowed to be photographed in death and people who are not.

It’s impossible for me to consider the question of graphic photos of natural disasters without thinking about the relative absence of dead bodies in war reporting. War photography invites the the same concerns as disaster photography about creating distance from victims portrayed in graphic photos (especially since the U.S. media strictly controls photography of its own dead and dying soldiers, making it much easier for journalists to display dead people from other countries). But I think there are reasons to publicize the horror of death and dying in wars that simply don’t exist for natural disasters. It seems obvious that the destruction of human bodies is the most important story when a natural disaster occurs. But it is easier to forget (particularly with the complicity of a squeamish news media) that war is about destroying human bodies, too. The way we talk about war often makes it seem more about ideas—national security, sovereignty, regime change—than about the death and dying that are war’s central building blocks.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry discusses how torture and war are similar in that, in both, “the incontestable reality of the body—the body in pain, the body maimed, the body dead and hard to dispose of—is separated from its source and conferred on an ideology or issue or instance of political authority impatient of, or deserted by, benign sources of substantiation.” Graphically violent war photography is worth publishing, despite the considerable risks of doing so, if it helps remind audiences of the centrality of death and dying in war, independent of ideology.

*I do not mean to suggest that audiences of U.S. news publications are uniformly white or non-Haitian, only that most audience members will at least be physically distant from the victims, and many others will share one or more other markers of difference from the victims portrayed.

There are, of course, lots of big problems with journalism’s treatment of missing women. But I was struck yesterday by two headlines, both of which described their subjects as “missing moms.” Neither of the stories attached to the headlines—an AP story on NYT.com and a local news station’s story linked from CNN.com—suggested that the woman’s status as a parent was relevant to her disappearances (dropping children off at day care, or failing to do so, did figure into the stories of Susan Powell of Utah and Cortney Hudson in Massachusetts, but not centrally as far as I could tell).

NYT.com Search Results for "Susan Powell"

Searching the NYT.com for the name of the missing Utah woman retrieved these results, all but one of which use "Utah Mom" to describe her.

So why would news organizations characterize the two women that way? I wondered initially if the women were full-time parents and the descriptor was being used as the equivalent to a noun describing a profession, as in a headline reading “Police Treat Missing Utah Banker as Criminal Case.” But both women have jobs outside the home. The only explanation I can think of is that the headline writers (and reporters themselves, who both used “mother” as the subject of their lede sentence) thought that defining these women by their relationships with their children would make the story more affecting for their audience. That or that the news organizations were making the (impossible and totally inappropriate) judgment that the women’s parental roles were somehow more central to their identity than other elements of their lives.

Of course the prospect of children losing a parent is affecting, and might easily have a place in a story about a missing person who is raising children. But choosing to elevate that element of a person’s life by literally defining her by it encompasses a judgment that no journalist is qualified to make. And if the search for affect was indeed the reasoning behind the “missing mom” meme, then the writers have violated what should be a standard of ethical journalism: it should rarely, if ever, prioritize a person’s value to others over her unique value as a human. We have a serious cultural problem if a story about a missing woman requires her to be a mother in order to tug at our heart strings sufficiently.

CNN.com "Latest News" 12/15/09, Around 3:30

CNN.com front page "Latest News" 12/15/09, around 3:30.

It would be interesting to do a headline search in Lexis-Nexis for “Mom” and “Dad” and compare how often the described person’s status as a parent was of primary importance to the story. Without doing that, I can only say that it seems much less likely that a missing man would be described as a “missing dad” if his fatherhood were irrelevant to his disappearance. (Though he would almost certainly receive less coverage overall than his female counterpart.) He would be a “missing man” or possibly a “missing [representative of his profession].” Like “missing mom,” the latter choice reduces the missing person to one element of his life. While that reduction might also be problematic, most professions are less fraught with historical and sociological baggage than motherhood.

At work today, I encountered a question over whether the word “war” should be applied to the December 2008–January 2009 armed conflict in the Gaza Strip. My ensuing research and conversations about the issue haven’t really changed my mind—the high number of deaths and the fact that the episode involved a large-scale military invasion merit the description “war” to my mind—but they did raise a number of interesting questions. What characteristics transform fighting or armed conflict into a full-fledged “war”? Is it even useful to apply objective standards to such a determination? Does the word “war” create a meaningful distinction in readers’ minds, and if so, what are the consequences of filing a conflict into that category?

All of which lead, of course, to the big question of whether it matters what nouns journalists use to describe fighting. My tentative answer is “yes,” though other elements of reporting almost certainly matter more. Because I am accustomed to seeing the Gaza fighting described as a “war” (and most mainstream print media outlets do describe it that way, at least some of the time), it feels different, set apart from the decades of violence that surround it. “War” confers a sense of historical importance, which I think can be useful to recognize in a conflict that’s ongoing or in the recent past. But I think sense of scale is the main reason that the “war”/not “war” question feels significant—the word “war” offers an immediate idea of deadliness, which words like “fighting,” “violence,” and especially “conflict” lack. Even words like “offensive” and “incursion,” which are useful in the case of the war in Gaza because they provide an extra piece of information, don’t carry the same immediate connotation of death on a large scale.

Of course, an ideal piece of journalism will give lots of information and detail that takes the pressure of conveying the scale of violence off of a single noun. But I still wonder whether there isn’t a meaningful nuance separating the sentences “the three-week-long war killed up to 1400 Palestinian people and 13 Israeli people” and “the three-week-long conflict killed up to 1400 Palestinian people and 13 Israeli people.”

But the idea that the word “war” conveys historical importance raises a separate set of questions—if we distinguish a group of violent struggles by declaring them “wars,” and use that word to convey their importance, are we contributing to the chronic neglect of conflicts that don’t fit our definition of war but that deserve more media attention? After all, high human tolls distinguish many forms of armed conflict that aren’t likely to fit anyone’s criteria for “war.”

I don’t think I can finagle this into being about the news media, but since (as previously discussed) House sometimes gets almost as large an audience as the three network evening news shows combined, I think its sociological messages are fair game.

I am a pretty faithful House fan—Hugh Laurie’s misanthropic commentary and my love of weekly mysteries (even trite ones) provide enough enjoyment to make up for what I perceive as a decline in the show’s quality over the last couple of seasons. But tonight’s episode about a brutal dictator from a generic African country rubbed me wrong, and not just because of it’s corny gestures toward wrestling with Big Philosophical Questions.

For those who don’t schedule their Monday evenings around the show (I’m ashamed to admit that we actually got a digital converter box two hours before this year’s season premier in order to catch it), today’s episode found Dr. House and his team treating a genocidal African dictator and wrestling with the implications of restoring him to health.

The problematic element for me was the generic country, which I thought fit too neatly into uncomplicated Western ideas of an unstable African nation. The script’s use of details picked from various African conflicts (ethnic violence, an uprising “in the south,” genocide perpetrated against a once-powerful ethnic minority that sounded an awful lot like “Tutsi,” child soldiers abducted, drugged and forced to commit atrocities, a charismatic and ruthless leader, etc.) and lumping of them into one generic African genocide seemed to play on the audience’s expectations about the Bad Things that happen in Africa. The conflation of conflicts separated by decades and thousands of miles undermined the unique horror of the real conflicts. And it erroneously suggested that those conflicts were interchangeable, apparently bound together by some vague tie of “Africanness.”

And I do know that shows like this have to simplify complicated ideas in order to create satisfying one-hour units of entertainment. They often pull similar tricks of conflation without raising anyone’s hackles—drawing together details of several famous crimes, for example, into a Frankenstein’s monster of a crime that resembles many but duplicates none. But Western thinking about Africa, and especially African conflict, is too important and too fragile for the the usual one-hour drama treatment. I would rather House had avoided the topic entirely than reinforce such simplified and un-useful conceptions of conflict in Africa.

[EDITED to remove photo due to rights concerns.]

I just wanted to point to this short meditation of Megan Garber’s at CJR.org on the tone of news coverage in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. She very succinctly gets to a point that struck me at the time, and that partly inspired my interest in the political and moral consequences of journalistic language.

It is so important to remember that war wasn’t an inevitable response, and to explore the question of whether news coverage in the  immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks might have created a sense of inevitability as it shaped our collective understanding of a complex event.

I realize that there are lots of important media ethics issues to discuss surrounding this week’s special New York Times Magazine issue about “Saving the World’s Women” (that white knight–inflected title would be a good place to start), but my friend Shannon pointed out a pretty glaring, if ultimately less weighty, issue: does the special text surrounding the online magazine preview really have to be pink?

I guess the online producers wanted to distinguish the “special issue” in some way, but I can’t interpret the decision to use pink in any way that doesn’t undermine the theme of many of the issue’s articles: that women’s struggles deserve to be taken seriously by policy makers and should be treated as “hard news” in the media. The pink color marks the weighty issues addressed in the articles (including women’s role in economic development, sexual slavery and human trafficking, and Liberian politics, among others) as belonging to a special interest, and places them in opposition to the magazine’s “normal,” “universal” fare.

Using pink to brand things for women is a historically suspect enterprise. For decades, manufacturers of all sorts have used it to pitch their wares to women while entrenching rigid gender roles and distinctions. The “pink for women” marker would have to be used in a pretty innovative way* for it to seem like a useful journalistic tool, and I don’t think the Times met that bar. I’m curious to see what the print version will look like.

*I would love to hear thoughts from anyone familiar with the breast cancer awareness campaign, which has clearly used “pink for women” to great and serious effect.

I caught this headline on the CNN.com front page today, and was impressed with the irony of its placement on a front page that regularly features breathless coverage of celebrities and human interest stories far more prominently than “hard news.” I might have been prepared to consider the article an unaccustomed (and hugely inadequate to the task) example of self-reflection on CNN’s part, if it weren’t for a promo I found when I clicked through to the article.

Here’s the front page—I know the text is tiny, but the highlighted headline reads “Too much attention to Kate, Jon and ‘Octomom’?”:

The front page of CNN, August 17, 2009 around 3pm

The front page of CNN.com, August 17, 2009 around 3pm

This is what the article looked like when I clicked through the link (how could I resist?). The highlighted text is a hyperlink that reads “Don’t Miss: Cops called to Jon and Kate Gosselin’s home“:

CNN.com screenshot, August 17, 2009, about 3pm

CNN.com screenshot, August 17, 2009, about 3pm

That’s right, in the center of the article, there is a large, prominently placed promo for a People article about police being called to Jon and Kate Gosselin’s home (an incident in which “no one was arrested and no citations were issued”). The original article itself does little more than recap an episode of Reliable Sources from the previous Sunday, though it does have the audacity to select its primary examples of “infotainment”-style news coverage from other news organizations. I know that the promos are very likely generated electronically, but I don’t think it requires human agency to demonstrate how deeply embedded the infotainment sensibility is at CNN. And, of course, at both of the other major cable news networks.

Here is a close-up of the article (from later in the day–apparently no one has pointed the indelicacy of the promo out to the editor in charge), so you can read the text of the article surrounding the “Don’t Miss” promo:

Screenshot from 12:30 am on August 18, 2009.

Screenshot from 12:30 am on August 18, 2009.

I don’t really have too much to add to these images. It seems obvious to me that it’s unethical for media organizations that bill themselves as news purveyors to pay so very much attention to celebrity and human interest stories of little or no political or social value (I can’t agree with The Baltimore Sun‘s David Zurawik, quoted in the article, that Jon and Kate represent an important sociological phenomenon. Perhaps the attention to them is an important sociological phenomenon, but that’s not what gets covered…). The “the public demands it” argument carries little weight with me since it is not the business of news media to offer the public exactly what it demands (judging by ratings, for example, the public demands House and Mad Men, which news networks clearly recognize as outside of their purview). Perhaps more importantly, I believe thyat there is a complicated relationship between what the news media offer, how they offer it, and what the public “demands.”

From today’s Washington Post story about Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s heritage and ethnic identity, regarding her years as an undergraduate at Princeton: “She was active in Latino student affairs but not a bomb-thrower.” That is the whole sentence, and there is no context that I can find to justify the assumption that the audience would read “active in Latino student affairs” and immediately imagine that the young Sotomayor was a radical hyperpartisan.

The latter description reflects my new-found understanding of the idiom “bomb-thrower,” which I have to admit to reading literally when I came across it. While I am fully prepared to believe that reporters Amy Goldstein and Jerry Markon didn’t really feel the need to disambiguate “active in Latino student affairs” from “violent domestic terrorist,” I still wonder why on earth they conflated the former with radical political activism, or partisanship of any type.

Perhaps they meant that she was involved in “political activism centered around Latino issues”? The bomb-thrower comment would make more sense that way. Or perhaps they meant “bomb-thrower” as shorthand for political involvement, which would make a more reasonable contrast to Latino student affairs? We shouldn’t have to guess. And the fact that several editors must have seen and approved this sentence suggest some bizarre assumptions about how the audience would interpret Sotomayor’s past.

Once again it’s just me on the Usage Panel, but I’ve got another interesting issue to address, and lots of others have written about it, so I will consider my post as participation in an internet-wide “panel.” The question is what noun-phrases media organizations should use when identifying people who reside in or enter the U.S. in violation of U.S. immigration laws.

“Illegal aliens” and “illegals” are two answers that can be dispensed with pretty easily. When used in journalism, the legal term “aliens” suggests an exaggerated sense of strangeness, and the connotation with martians is unavoidable. Although it’s relatively rare to find uses of “illegal aliens” in major news organizations (cable news, as always, excepted), except in quotes, a quick Google news search found numerous examples from local news organizations. “Illegals” dehumanizes, defining a diverse group of people by one (negative) characteristic by employing the reductive practice of noun-ifying an adjective. In a 2006 press release addressing immigration terminology, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists states that “using ['illegals'] in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed.” “Illegals” is increasingly unusual even in headlines (where more accurate and ethical, but longer, phrases are sometimes eschewed for space considerations), though the AP seems to have few scruples about using the word, in headlines, the body of a story, or both.  I don’t know how much control publications that use AP stories have over style issues like that, but it would be interesting to know to what extent they are allowed to impose their own style guildelines.

The interesting question for me is whether “illegal immigrant” is an ethical/accurate way to refer to people who enter or reside in the country illegally. It is by far the most common way of describing this group of people in journalism, the reason given usually being that it provides the most direct and truthful description. I’ve encountered a lot of compelling arguments against using this term, though. The first is that a substantial minority (about 40%, according to the most often quoted numbers) of those residing in the country illegally didn’t actually immigrate illegally, but overstayed their visas, and the term “illegal immigrant” obscures that group. Also, as I understand it, the charges against people who enter or live in the U.S. illegally are primarily (perhaps all? any lawyers out there who can help me?) civil, not criminal. And though “illegal” is still technically accurate, the word does suggest criminality to my mind. The main argument against “illegal immigrants” by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is that “the term criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States without federal documents.” Ted Vaden, in a North Carolina News and Observer column, offers this distinction: “Illegal may be used to describe how people got here — “immigrants who are in the country illegally” — but not to describe the people themselves — “illegal immigrants.” “

But if “illegal immigrants” is problematic, what term should replace it? “Undocumented immigrant” and “undocumented worker” are often raised as more humanizing alternatives. Although “immigrants” is an imperfect option for the noun, I think “worker” is even less accurate and I can’t think of a third option. “Undocumented workers” is a useful phrase only when the employment status of the people being described is relevant to the story. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense as a replacement for “immigrants.” The primary argument against “undocumented”—made in both the Washington Post and the New York Times stylebooks—is that it is a euphemism. According to the  Post stylebook (as quoted by then-Ombudsman Deborah Howell in an interesting column), “When used to describe immigrants, ['undocumented'] is a euphemism that obscures an important fact — that they are in this country illegally.” In an October 2007 New York Times editorial observer column in which Lawrence Downes assesses several possible labels for people who enter or reside in the country illegally, he writes, “Someone who sneaked over the border and faked a Social Security number has little right to say: “Oops, I’m undocumented. I’m sure I have my papers here somewhere.” “

Downes  suggests “unauthorized immigrants,” which strikes me as an accurate description that avoids many of the pitfalls of both “illegal” and “undocumented.” (The San Antonio Express-News apparently uses “unauthorized,” and the term is also discussed in this thoughtful post about the labeling issue by writer Daniel Hernandez at his blog Intersections.) I like how “unauthorized” doesn’t simply define a group of people by their status under U.S. law, but gives some shape to the institution that would bar them from entry or residence. It also avoids the problem of referring to immigrants who possess faked documents as “undocumented.” I think I’ll make the switch to “unauthorized immigrant” in my own writing—when a short label is necessary—unless anyone can suggest a better option in the comments section.

But maybe more important than the choice of which shorthand to choose is the fact that any shorthand used to label a large and diverse group of people is bound to obscure some truths. Aly Colon makes that point eloquently in a Poynter Online “Diversity at Work” blog post:

As a journalist who has written about and edited many stories involving diverse issues and people from different backgrounds, my inclination is to avoid labels as much as possible. Try to describe as accurately as you can the people you are covering. The more specific, the better. What we, as journalists, think we save by using a label and fewer words, we more than make up for in confusion, bias, prejudice and distortion. Labels limit us. And they limit the reality we see.

The Columbia Journalism Review “Campaign Desk” blog posts a very clear explainer today addressing the questions about reporting unemployment statistics that I talked about here last year. The CJR post includes a nice collection of recent articles that delve into the meaning and complexities of the data they cite instead of relying unthinkingly on the most often-cited U-3 number.

I guess it’s a pretty good time for everyone—editors, journalists, and audiences—to start thinking critically about the way we talk about and frame economic statistics.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.