Monday, April 25, 2011

How to report about illegal immigration: the same way you report about Magdalene, Thistle Farms, and prostitution (no one called "illegal" or "illegals")

NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden interviews Nina, Thistle Farms employee (Photo: C. Snell)

In Jacki Lyden's three-part NPR series about prostitution in Music City and the good work of Nashville's Magdalene House/Thistle Farms to help the victims of that trade, there is not one use of the words "illegal" or "illegals" to describe the people who violate the law in the context of prostitution. These words are used instead:
  • Brittany Messina
  • girl
  • prostitute
  • street walker
  • mother
  • women
  • ex-prostitute
  • former prostitute
  • Alexis
  • john
  • former offender
  • men
  • law student
  • man in a polo shirt
  • these guys
  • good-looking man
  • father
  • people
Make no mistake: the event without which this story would not exist is a crime. Still, in this NPR story covering the effects and aftermath of crime - and the people involved - we see the journalist using a wealth of ways to refer to people other than labeling them with a criminal title. Jacki Lyden doesn't shy away from the words "prostitute," "street walker," or "john," but she doesn't exclusively use such labels.

The immigration beat, in contrast, typically (and often exclusively) overlabels the people in its stories. This is not about saying "undocumented" or "illegal" - it's about sometimes saying neither.

Journalists and their readers should take note from Lyden's example of how to report on law-breaking without overlabeling. People are students, sisters, fathers, good-looking or not, with names. Don't forget to describe them that way.

What a nice story this is to make the point. Kudos to NPR and to Nashville's own Magdalene/Thistle Farms.

http://www.npr.org/2011/04/25/135633315/magdalene-program



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