Friday, June 11, 2010

Framing request for journalists: use familiar words

Photo by Meg.  Licensed via Creative Commons.
When it's a story about soccer, people from outside the U.S. are called "natives" of their home country, and "expatriates."  In a variety of contexts, those two words are often used to describe Americans, too.  So the immigrants in the soccer story seem familiar to us, because we have read about them in words that often describe us.

But when it's a story about immigration law, people from outside the U.S. are almost never called "expatriates."  Trust me, I've been paying attention to this one.  And if you want to see for yourself, your search in Google News for the words "expatriates" and "immigration" in the same story will come up with fewer than 100 hits.

Journalists: if you use two different sets of vocabulary for the same group of people - immigrants - depending on whether the issue is about something we're all somewhat familiar with (sports/soccer) or something we're not all familiar with (immigration), that differentiation forces readers into a familiar frame of mind for the former and an unfamiliar frame of mind for the latter.

Here's a remedy: use familiar words more frequently.  There's no journalistic reason not to, and it will build a more familiar frame around immigrants when we talk about immigration law.  Here's how you can do it - find a place for "expatriate" in a story about immigration law - and use that word. Let me know in the comments if you don't think you can or should.

Having said that, I have to return to a point I've made before, which is that immigration-centric labels themselves should be discarded if unnecessary, no matter how "good" or familiar they are.  Case in point: in the soccer story linked above, the immigrants are also described as "Maury County resident," "soccer backers," or "Nashville's [first and last name]."

That's even better.  So here's a revised suggestion for the journalists: after "expatriate," say "Nashville's Juana Villegas," or whatever name it is of the person you're writing about.

1 comment:

  1. So much to say about this. Sometimes, its a case of lazy journalistic work ethic. Sometimes, its a tell about the journalist's own bias. (White people gathering supplies after a storm, black people looting after a storm) Sometimes, its about using language that guarantees to pull a reader's eyes.

    I'm agreeing with you, have no doubt. But I wouldn't worry that some journalists are going to balk at this suggestion over journalistic integrity, that has been on the decline for decades.