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Immigration Debate Involves Media Beyond News Coverage



Are people who enter the country illegally "illegal immigrants," "illegal aliens," "undocumented workers," or "economic refugees?"

This is one of the issues which has emerged as media grapples with the escalating debate on immigration -- a debate uniquely fueled and influenced by media outlets themselves.

Three of the nation's largest organizations representing journalists of color -- the National Association of Black Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists -- have asked news outlets to refrain from using the terms "illegal aliens" or "illegals" in favor of the mushier-sounding "undocumented workers" or "economic refugees."

It's a debate that brings to mind the discussion over use of the term "refugee" to describe victims of Hurricane Katrina displaced from their homes. In both cases, these journalism organizations fear the prejorative nature of the colloquial terms, asking new outlets to find language that seems less dehumanizing.

But even some members of the journalism groups have questioned this call, noting that the subjects referred to by the terms have entered the country illegally -- an element which the groups' preferred terms neatly avoids.

Though I have been vocal about the need for media to be sensitive to such issues, I wonder if there isn't a middle ground possible. Indeed, "illegals" and "aliens" do sound dehumanizing; I've always used the term "illegal immigrants," which captures the law-breaking aspect without adding a xenophobic flair which makes me uncomfortable.

There's plenty of room for grandstanding on both sides of this issue, as nationwide protests and growing questions over security and use of government resources forces the nation to face its own hypocrisy on this issue. And what strange bedfelllows this issue makes -- with progressive advocated for immigrants aligned with business interests depending on the cheap labor from undocumented workers, while keeep-em-out conservatives are moving close to advocates for poor and disenfranchised American citizens, concerned their causes may be forgotten in the rush to deal with immigration.

Most interesting from the media pespective, is the role Spanish-language media outlets played in getting out the word on protests which took the English-speaking part of America by surprise last week and pushed the issue of immigration reform to the front burner. As Spanish-language stations ran promos on the upcoming rallies and covered their development, audiences that often outstrip the size of network newscasts were urged to join the events.

Few issues have the power to unite Hispanics across cultural lines like immigration, and the turnout of 500,000 protesters in Los Angeles alone sent a powerful message to politicians facing bruising midterm election prospects.

Many Hispanic journalists have written on the issue, including Gilbert Bailon, publisher and editor of Al Dia, former executive editor of the Dallas Morning News and secretary of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who noted: "Many radio talk show and cable television hosts have shown great reactionary form. Put these "illegals" on the next train to Mexico and arm the border. Build huge walls and moats to keep them out. The vitriol gets so heated it seems they lose track that they are talking about human lives."

Indeed, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs has made a personal crusade of the illegal immigration issue, featuring regular reports titled "Broken Borders" and featuring a quote from TeddyRoosevelt on his web site which reads, in part, "We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American."

It seems obvious we can't continue a system in which 500,000 illegal immigrants a year sneak across Mexico's border, and we can't close our eyes to employers who pay them less to work less safe, less regulated jobs.

It also seems obvious that the media which covers this issue best will be inclusive and open-minded, without pandering or apologizing: a tough task, to be sure....

Jill Carroll Released Alive, But Questions Remain

Good news yesterday that kidnapped reporter Jill Carroll was released alive and unharmed, though questions remain about why and how she was released. Both government sources and her employer, the Christian Science Monitor, have denied there were any negotiations or money paid to secure her release. Carroll herself has told interviewers she has no idea why she was released.

And while some -- including me -- crtiticized media outlets' decision to withhold news of Carroll's abduction for two days, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad now says the delay gave them time to present a public image of Carroll as a pious, professional and noteworthy journalist, which may have saved her life.

Even though several journalists who havbe covered Iraq have told me they provided similar courtesies for non-journalists who were kidnapped, I can't help but wonder if they would have gone to similar lengths to help someone who wasn't one of their own.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:36pm]


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