Monday, January 4, 2010

Tennessean cover story describes thousands on the wrong side of the law, but none are called "illegal"

Journalists, politicians, and anyone interested in politics, take note.

On Sunday, Chas Sisk's top-of-the-fold Tennessean cover story on business tax amnesty demonstrated how to describe unlawful behavior without using the noun or adjective "illegal" to describe the lawbreaker.

The word choices to describe the people who had violated the law were simple: "businesses," "companies," "people," "businesspeople," and "owners."

Only two terms in the article turned the lawless behavior into a noun or adjective that described the offender: "scofflaws" and "noncompliant businesses." These terms were used half as frequently as the generic terms such as "businesses" and "people." The term "illegal" doesn't appear once.

If the standard for Americans who break the law is to predominantly use terms like "businesses" and "people," then it's slanted to commonly describe foreigners who break the law as "illegal" or "undocumented," and picking one word over the other can't make the descriptions any more accurate or any less unequal.

As I said last month, how we handle our words when we describe foreigners is a moral issue. If we tend to avoid certain words (like "illegal") when we describe an American who breaks the law, we mustn't favor that vocabulary when it's a foreigner who breaks the law. Being even-handed in our criticism of Americans and foreigners is about being morally, not politically, correct.

For a run-down of the Tennessean article's exact word choice, see here.

See also: Elizabeth Wright is pro-amnesty and Even tax collectors want to make compliance easy.

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