Reporters adrift in a sea of people

The recent influx of uninvited visitors into Western Europe has created a language crisis in the journalism community.

The word nerds have been working overtime, contemplating what to call those arriving en masse by land and sea.

The choice has come down to: migrant or refugee.

Editorial directives have been issued. It should all be clear now. Or not.

The New York Times went so far as to give readers seven answers to seven questions, what it calls an “explainer story,” under the headline: Migrant or Refugee? There Is a Difference, With Legal Implications.

But questions about the questions and answers were sent to the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who passed the questions on to a Times editor.

Joseph Kahn answered Sullivan’s questions, based on readers’ questions, with an answer that included:

  • “We have used the term migrant rather than refugee when referring in a blanket sense to the full wave of people seeking entry into Europe.”
  • ”We have sought to use the term refugee when the bulk of people in a sub-group of migrants we are writing about are likely to qualify as refugees entitled to legal protection.”

Kahn concluded:

“While imperfect, it is accurate to refer to both migrants and refugees as ‘migrants,’ because they all belong to the class of people moving from one place to another. It is not accurate to refer to all migrants as refugees, however, as refugees have a special status under international law that does not apply to all migrants.”

Ms. Sullivan concluded: “This explanation makes sense to me.”

Great. Now that a couple of people in New York have sorted it out, reporters in Europe are left to determine who has refugee status under international law.

The woman in the black headscarf looks like a refugee to me.

They’re all wearing black headscarves.

What about that guy in the Polo hoodie?

Not buying it.

The guy in the Adidas tracksuit?

Definitely a migrant.

Here in Canada, the word came down from the CBC’s journalistic standards and practices director, David Studer:

“Unlike some other organizations, CBC News hasn’t issued a directive on language for stories about this cross-Mediterranean traffic, specifying the use of ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees.’

“It’s been left up to our journalists to choose the best noun for their story … Please bear this in mind. There is an option, but more often these days, the correct choice is refugees.”

So, it’s up to us, right?

Not really.

What do you mean?

He says refugees is more often correct.

So we go with refugees, right?

Right, it’s up to us and we choose refugees.

I worked at CBC for 10 years. I know an edict when I read one. And know good little soldiers take comfort in just following orders.

My two favorite CBC word games concerned a furry animal and al Qaeda.

The critter, a “fisher,” replaced fisherman for a couple of years – until the bigwig who issued the dimwitted decree moved on.

In 2002, chafed by post-9/11 American jingoism, the CBC brass decided to ban the words “terrorist” and “terrorism.”

How do we characterize Osama bin Laden?

Just call him that very tall Saudi gentleman.

Every newsroom has its strict constructionists.

When I was at Canadian Press, there was an editor who obsessed over every wrinkle in the news report.

When Paul Bernardo legally changed his last name to Teale, this self-appointed word doctor put out a memo that CP should follow suit.

Since the Ontario desk was handling the story, and I was Ontario news editor, I told my staffers to stick with Bernardo.

I don’t care if he changes his name to Mallard, or Goldeneye, or Bufflehead or any other duck, the reader isn’t going to know who the hell we’re talking about unless it’s Bernardo.

Nothing good can come from editorial overseers over-thinking their vocabulary (or anything else).

A friend at the Toronto Star once told me it was verboten to write somebody was murdered until someone else was convicted of the act.

Why? Because murder is a legal term.

Something is lost in the language of journalism when communicating with the reader/viewer/listener isn’t the primary concern.

For much of my lifetime, migrant workers were Spanish-speaking folks who came north to pick fruit and vegetables. They migrated with the seasons, like birds.

Those who stayed without permission were “illegal aliens” in the United States, or “illegal immigrants” in Canada.

Sometime after the news media erased the judgmental “illegal” tag, migrants became a catch-all for all poor wretches fleeing their home countries.

My head hurts every time the media feel compelled to categorize people.

Is it African-Americans? Blacks? African-Canadians? Native-Americans? Indians? Natives? Aboriginals? First Nations Peoples?  

Refugee seems like a term from another time – for those running steps ahead of an invading army, or left in the ruins of a bombed-out city, or survivors of the Holocaust.

But Nazis hid among the refugees of the Second World War.

And it’s a good bet terrorists have infiltrated the casualties of the war in Syria who are now in Western Europe.

Good luck to the officials trying to sort it all out, much less the journalists.


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