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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.

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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.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York TimesAfter Deadline” blog took on an issue close to my heart—the use of descriptive adjectives as nouns to refer to a group of people that share a particular characteristic. I’ve discussed my reservations about that usage briefly here before, but I thought it merited another mention. The “After Deadline” post specifically addresses use of the term “disabled” as a noun, arguing that “the difference between ‘the disabled’ and ‘disabled people’ (or ‘people with disabilities’) is subtle but significant. …it’s better to refer to people who, among other characteristics, have some disability, rather than to use the disability as the sole label.”

I couldn’t agree more, but wish that Times Deputy News Editor Philip B. Corbett, who maintains the blog and the Times stylebook, had gone on to generalize his conclusion to other nouns and other groups of people. According to the stylebook as cited by Corbett, “the disabled” should be avoided as a noun because “it may seem to equate widely diverse people and undervalue the productive parts of their lives.” I understand that the second listed reason for avoiding the term—undervaluing productive parts of peoples’ lives—applies specifically to “disabled,” which some might perceive as emphasizing a negative characteristic. But the first reason—the desire to avoid equating widely diverse people—applies equally to nouns like “blacks” and “homosexuals” (which are both used relatively often in the Times, as here and here).

I do think that there’s an extra element of “othering” in the fact that the adjective-noun “disabled” is always preceded by the article “the.” The only other adjective-nouns I can think of that are used that way are nationality nouns like “the Chinese” or “the French.” And the fact that it would sound absurd to discuss “the Americans” in a newspaper story suggests that that construction only works with groups that are unfamiliar or “other” enough to the audience that they can be comfortably grouped into a monolith. But why not avoid the problem altogether by using “disabled people,” “white people,” and “Senegalese people”? Adjectives are the right parts of speech for that kind of information because their function is to describe things, where the function of nouns is to define things.

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.

This incredibly offensive and inaccurate headline appeared on CNN.com on Monday: “Ellen DeGeneres ‘marries’ Portia Rossi.” There was, of course, nothing pretend about the marriage–DeGeneres and de Rossi wed in California over the weekend. I personally don’t think that a marriage’s legal status is what should confer legitimacy on the union–I wouldn’t use scare quotes to call into question the legitimacy of a marriage between consenting adults in any state. But I really can’t imagine how anyone at CNN could perceive those quotes as ethical or accurate when the marriage in question was entirely legal.

It's hard to imagine what they were thinking...

It's hard to imagine what they were thinking...

The editors at CNN.com apparently came to the same conclusion because they changed their headline later in the morning to “Ellen DeGeneres reportedly weds Portia Rossi.” Hopefully, the original headline was the work of an individual that slipped through the editorial cracks, instead of the more troubling possibility that it was approved for publication by several sets of eyes. Either way, it should never have appeared. It should have sent up an armada of red flags to anyone who saw it. And the fact that it didn’t immediately do so suggests a culture–if not of overt homophobia, then of a tendency to advance socially conservative and discriminatory narratives about family life.

CNN.com rethinks its headline.

CNN.com rethinks its headline.

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 couple of weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune‘s public editor, Kathleen Parker. The Parker column, which sparked so much comment that McNulty devoted a second column to reader responses to the controversy, defends the argument of a white voter that Barack Obama is less than “a full-blooded American:”

It’s about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots.

Some run deeper than others and therein lies the truth of Fry’s political sense. In a country that is rapidly changing demographically—and where new neighbors may have arrived last year, not last century—there is a very real sense that once-upon-a-time America is getting lost in the dash to diversity.

It’s pretty easy to see what upset the Tribune readers cited by McNulty in his column, and McNulty acknowledges that Parker’s ideas are likely to be “ridiculous and repugnant … to many, if not most, Americans.” But he goes on to defend the piece’s placement in the Tribune:

Anyone who believes that the race issue will be dormant in the general election—presuming that Obama is the Democratic candidate—is hiding from reality. It remains a divisive issue and, as Parker noted, some fear that “their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative.”

I think it is the news media’s responsibility to highlight not just the political stratagems but the attitudes that help create them.

The aim of the Tribune’s Commentary page is to display a wide range of subjective opinions, even those some may consider offensive. Printing a column is not the same as sanctioning it.

I don’t think I can agree with McNulty. Printing a column is not the same thing as agreeing with it, but it does amount to sanctioning it by assuming that its ideas will contribute in a meaningful way to the national conversation. There are obviously some ideas so offensive and devoid of intellectual and social value that respected newspapers would not consider publishing a column that espoused them. The Tribune decided that Paker’s column fell on the acceptable side of that divide despite her extensive use of what McNulty calls “code words” for racism.

To argue that the op-ed page is one big mirror on which is reflected the nation’s (or Illinois’) entire range of opinions, however offensive, is either disingenuous or silly. So is comparing the publishing of Parker’s column to printing news reports of racist attitudes (as McNulty does later in his column). It is indeed “the news media’s responsibility to highlight not just the political stratagems but the attitudes that help create them,” but when those attitudes are highly offensive, news reporting is the appropriate place to address them. The opinion page should be a forum for intelligent debate. By placing Parker’s racist column there, the Tribune asserted that it could contribute something to the national debate.

The dust-up recalled the uproar over the Washington Post‘s decision to publish in its Sunday “Outlook” section Charlotte Allen’s anti-feminist March 2 column entitled “We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?” It’s quite a piece—deeply sexist, as thousands of outraged readers pointed out to the Post, and I think it’s also fair to characterize it as silly, somewhat rambling, and full of generalizations that don’t make a lot of sense. What struck me most about the piece was what seemed to me an utter lack of intellectual content. It’s hard to see what serious thinkers about gender issues would latch onto in order to engage it.

Post editors originally defended their decision to publish the piece by calling it “tongue-in-cheek” (a characterization that Allen herself disclaimed), but they addressed the controversy extensively in print, allowing several columnists to rebut Allen’s piece and publishing several of the many, many critical letters the newspaper received from readers. Deborah Howell, the Post‘s ombudsman, concluded that the newspaper shouldn’t have published the piece because it was a misguided attempt to coat offensive ideas in humor. I agree with Howell (though I don’t think the humor is the root of the column’s problem), and with MissLaura of Daily Kos, who argued that “Charlotte Allen isn’t the problem. The Washington Post is.”

I like that the editorial pages of respected newspapers are willing to publish controversial, and even blatantly wrong-headed, opinions. But such pieces are only valuable when they contribute something other than vitriol to the national debate(s). Garden-variety racism and sexism aren’t likely to do that. Nor are non garden–variety racism and sexism, for that matter.