Thursday, March 25, 2010


pickles & olives, then pickles, then olives
Photo by Sandy Kemsley.  Licensed by Creative Commons.
In a story about immigration bureaucracy reform, doesn't the following sentence make a redundant reference to the legal status of the students? legislation, in the form of the Dream Act, will allow better access to universities for promising illegal students who are working toward legalization.
Why the word "illegal?"  If the students are working toward legalization, isn't it understood that they have an immigration status problem?

This is a perfect example of the point I made in my previous post, and a demonstration of the erroneous but common tendency of journalists to define people with immigration problems with labels that refer to their immigration status more frequently than they define people with other legal problems with labels that refer to their alleged violations.

The sentence in the story above could have been reworded as I've indicated below and been just as accurate, without the person-defining word "illegal" (or "undocumented" or any similar variation): legislation, in the form of the Dream Act, will allow better access to universities for promising students who are working toward legalization.
If you must, end it with "toward their own legalization."  But once these people are defined as students in this sentence, that is all the labeling and the defining needed there.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The nouns of lawbreaking and how the immigration beat overuses labels like "illegal"

Defining the person by a label
Photo by Bill H-D. Licensed under Creative Commons.

How do we frame people who break the law? From my observation, reporting on immigration law violations tends to define the person who is on the wrong side of that law much more than reporting on people who are on the wrong side of any other law.

For example, a January Tennessean cover story on business tax amnesty described the people who had violated the law as, "companies," "people," "businesspeople," and "owners." Barely used were terms that turned the lawless behavior into a noun or adjective that defined the offender, like "scofflaws" and "noncompliant businesses." The term "illegal" doesn't appear once.

I point this out because of two stories in the Tennessean today.

The first is a story about a driver who crashed a stolen car onto the steps of City Hall yesterday. The AP story refers to the person as the "driver" five times (including in the headline) and uses no other description. WSMV's report uses the word "man" once, "driver" four times (including in the headline), and "car thief" only once.

The second carries this headline: "Lipscomb University recruiter bonuses broke federal law." Note that no person broke the law; it was the bonuses who did it. And that frame carries beyond the headline to this statement in the story itself: "Unfortunately, the incentives also broke federal law." The words "unethical recruiters" appear in the story, but only as background for why the law was created. (No surprise, then, that after the article concludes with "Lipscomb did not suffer any penalties for the incident, and all the recruiters were allowed to keep their bonuses," the normally venomous Tennessean commenters chimed in with "Yawn. Non story" and "Just another non-story from The Thin-essean.")

When the law is immigration, however, defining the person by the legal violation is much more prevalent. Just look at the story today in the Tennessean on the 100,000-500,000-strong immigration march yesterday in D.C.: people with immigration law problems are described only three times, and with the exact same words: "illegal immigrants."

In theory or in isolation, that use of the modifier "illegal" to construct and repeat the term "illegal immigrants" might seem to make sense, but not when businesses that violate tax laws are called - without any legal modifier - "companies," "people," "businesspeople," and "owners;" not when a man who violates property and vehicular laws is called a "driver" with no accompanying adjective; and not when the people who commit recruiting violations at a Nashville university are merely called "recruiters."  Those stories all explain the violation without legally defining the violator.

Legal tags like "undocumented" or "illegal" are unnecessary.  The right practice is not to choose which is the least offensive or the most accurate of the two.  The right practice is to stay away - from these labels or any variant.

It's not that reporters on immigration should do anything different that their colleagues working other legal beats. Avoiding labels like "undocumented" or "illegal" is standard media practice in every other context. Deviating from that practice at the immigration desk is probably an unconscious act, but as a result, it is both unwarranted and unprofessional.  It has become a scarlet letter.  I'll leave it for you to decide who's wearing it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Health care framing could have made GM bailout more popular: BusinessWeek

In February, BusinessWeek devoted its cover story to the business messaging of President Obama. In a key interview question, the President displayed a tendency toward bloated framing:
If you had to distill your economic message into a single declarative sentence, what would it be?
That having broken the back of this recession, our goal now is to build a new foundation for long-term, sustainable economic growth, and that that requires innovation. It requires a smart energy policy. It requires a health-care system that is not a drag on business. And it requires an education system that is producing the most productive workers in the world.
The magazine's subsequent podcast about the cover story featured this unsolicited advice to the White House about framing the GM bailout:
The messaging on the other side has been very strong, whereas the messaging out of the White House has not been.
It comes back to this inability to get across a cohesive message. And let's talk about GM for a minute. You know, one of the ways that I think the administration could have been more successful in the past year was to realize that words like, "regulation" - "bailout," they don't play very well. There was an opportunity with GM to make it all about health care, and say, "Folks, the reason we have to go in here and save these jobs and save these companies is that, they can't afford to insure people anymore. Look at the pension program. Look at the costs they pay for their employees." And just by shifting that lens a little bit at the front, I actually think they could have had a smoother way to the bailout.
"Shifting that lens a little bit at the front" - that's framing.

So if the author's theory is that the widely unpopular bailouts could have been made more popular under a health care frame, he's assuming there's a heart switch for easing the burden of corporate America that doesn't also trip the corporate-giveaway or self-defense switches that would tend toward voter backlash.

What are you thoughts on BusinessWeek's framing advice to the President who just beat the odds against passing health care reform?

Friday, March 19, 2010

This is the Heart Switch blog

Framing is what this blog is about - finding the part of your audience's heart that already agrees with you and switching it on.

In politics, George Lakoff is the expert framer on the left, and Frank Luntz is the expert framer on the right. Luntz's side has been more effective, but maybe that's because the right is willing to follow his advice more faithfully than the left is willing to learn from Lakoff.

My pet peeve? When people stray from George Lakoff's advice in the title of his book Don't Think of an Elephant - in other words, don't adopt your opponents' frame. You can't rebut by starting with the imagery they're using against you. Violators of this rule include the Coffee Party that chose a name meant to conjure up the Tea Party it opposes, and political talk shows that think they're rebutting opponents' arguments when they repeat them verbatim, like Liberadio in my home town.