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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 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.

I just wanted to point to this interesting conversation between Megan Carpentier of Jezebel and Latoya Peterson of Racialicious about the relationship between race and the way disaster deaths are covered, pegged to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. And I wanted especially to point to Peterson’s blog post at Racialicious in which she discusses the earlier conversation (Racialicious, by the way, is always publishing interesting perspectives on race in the media). The original and meta discussions (and the comments attached to both) shed interesting light on the issues I looked at here. I still think language about and images of violence are necessary reminders of our responsibilities to the events being described. But it’s definitely important to remember how problematic that dynamic is when the current reality seems to be that the deaths of people considered “other” are treated more graphically than the deaths of white people in the U.S. and Europe.

The whole question makes me wonder if we should be thinking about the manner in which horrors are described, rather than the extent to which they are described or avoided. Is there a way to show violent death in all its horror without making it into “disaster porn”? To avoid the tabloidy, “house of horrors” approach and treat deaths with real gravity but without sanitizing violence? If that were possible, it seems like it would be the way to achieve the more complex understanding of “respect for the dead” briefly broached by Megan in the Jezebel conversation.

One of the most frustrating elements of news coverage of the 2004 election for me was the persistence of the phrases “moral issues” and “moral values” in descriptions of socially conservative voting patterns. Obviously socially liberal positions come from at least as moral a place as do socially conservative ones. I doubt that reporters meant to imply that they don’t, but using “values” as a shorthand for social conservatism left readers with that strange and inaccurate impression. I was particularly disturbed at the tendency to describe support for anti-gay measures in that way, because while the issue of gay rights is emphatically a moral one, I don’t think that the right lies with the discriminatory side.

So I approached the coverage of the passing of this year’s four anti-gay ballot measures with trepidation. I found, however, that the 2008 coverage wasn’t as ready to equate morality with social conservatism, and in some cases mainstream news reports acknowledged that the winning side hurt people by denying them their civil rights. The main New York Times article opens with the moving image of “a giant rainbow-colored flag in the gay-friendly Castro neighborhood of San Francisco…flying at half-staff” over the success of California’s Proposition 8. And for the most part, support for the bans was attributed to “social conservatives” or “religious conservatives,” rather than the “values voters” of 2004. By framing Proposition 8’s passage as “paradoxical” in an election that was so historic for the history of civil rights in the U.S., a CNN story acknowledges that gay marriage is indeed a civil-rights issue. And it was heartening to see news organizations recycle the (accurate) language of Proposition 8 itself, which points out that the measure seeks to deny a right, “the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.” There were a host of good stories speculating about the emotional, legal, and practical effects of Proposition 8 on same-sex couples who had married in California.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof seems to think that this descriptive evolution is a problem—or that is in part how I read his election day blog post about the relationship between his papers’ reporters and social conservatism. Kristof’s post dismisses—correctly, I think—the claim that the Times has a political bias, but it frets about the paper’s socially liberal ethos. There may be truth to some of his complaints, and I haven’t thought much about the way the Times addresses issues like gun control and abortion. But Kristof also mentions the Times‘ coverage of gay marriage as a problem. He points approvingly to a 2004 column by then–New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent in which Okrent laments the absence of stories exploring “partner abuse in the gay community, about any social difficulties that might be encountered by children of gay couples or about divorce rates,” among other issues that he thinks are necessary elements of “the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires.” Presumably he is suggesting that such stories are relevant to the question of whether gay marriage should be legal. In somewhat sarcastic language, Okrent bemoans the preponderance of positive stories about people who have been granted this right:

But for those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that ”For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy” (March 19); that the family of ”Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home” (Jan. 12) is a new archetype; and that ”Gay Couples Seek Unions in God’s Eyes” (Jan. 30). I’ve learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I’ve met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I’ve been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn’t even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you’d have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

Okrent’s column drew a great deal of mail, some of which he published in a subsequent column. One letter, which made a strong impression on me and which I have remembered often since, made the following concise argument:

In making the case that The Times’s coverage of the gay marriage issue has shown a liberal imbalance by printing articles portraying gay marital bliss over articles describing potential marital strife, you confuse balance with illogical overextension.

During the civil rights movement, it was not incumbent upon newspapers to run articles about the risks of African-Americans drowning in public swimming pools as arguments against desegregating those pools.

LAURA NEWMAN
Astoria, Queens, July 26, 2004

Kristof and Okrent seem to want to cloud what should be a straightforward question of discrimination and equality in the interest of appeasing a (large) segment of the population that does not want to consider the question in those terms.

Same-sex marriage and adoption are civil rights issues. So many newspapers have had to face their institutional regrets for not covering the Civil Rights Movements of the 1940s, 50s and 60s in terms of objective right and wrong. That ugly period in media history should serve as a cautionary tale to media organizations working to cover modern civil rights issues. Perhaps the coverage of gay rights in the 2008 election indicates that in one area, at least, the lesson is finally being heeded.

Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell’s column this week addresses her crusade to increase the Post‘s commitment to substantive coverage of the 2008 presidential election campaign. Howell last addressed the topic in a February column, having launched a project to analyze the paper’s campaign coverage in November.

Her findings, kept in a publicly-accessible spreadsheet, indicate that around twice as many Post stories about the election have focused on the political horse race than have focused on the candidate’s stances on issues or personal histories. I would guess that that ratio would be about the same at any national news outlet (except cable news, which must have a much much higher proportion of horse race coverage), but it would feel nice to imagine that Post felt some kind of special obligation as the county’s leading political news outlet to cover the presidential election as a substantive event with real moral consequences rather than an exercise in strategy.

Howell expresses more tolerance than I feel for some amount of horse-race reporting in the Post (or inside-baseball reporting, or whatever sports metaphor you prefer), arguing that “it’s important to know what is happening in the campaigns.” I’m not actually convinced that that’s true—it’s hard for me imagine what good it will do me as a voter and citizen to know which campaign advisers are hired or fired or how a campaign plans to position its candidate. Such stories might sometimes offer glimpses into a candidate’s character, I guess, but that is rarely their focus and I can’t imagine any good being served by their incredible prevalence, particularly when that prevalence is at the expense of substantive reporting.

And while I’m applauding attempts to shame serious news outlets into issue-oriented election coverage, the Columbia Journalism Review blogs do an excellent job of tracking the most egregious examples of horse race coverage and drawing attention to good, substantive political reporting.

A friend alerted me to this post on Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog, and I wanted to share a CBS News video that Cole points to. It features Army Times reporter and former soldier Kelly Kennedy discussing in gruesome detail the horrible things that she witnessed as an embedded reporter in Iraq. She has a really interesting perspective on the question of whether to report physically graphic details of war, and discusses how her desire to communicate her growing understanding of soldiers’ experiences sometimes conflicted with concerns about burdening her audience with the harrowing details. She catalogs some of the reasons that war reporters don’t report the worst of what they encounter.