Language is a powerful tool that can sway public opinion on social issues, and the language used in the coverage and commentary on so-called migrant crises in parts of the world is no exception. When it comes to leading the discourse, some of our political leaders use rhetoric that is more concerned with the “need to protect our borders” from “swarms” of “marauding migrants” than with responding with humanity to very human needs.
News reports meanwhile continue to include words like illegal and irregular in descriptions of people who cross borders, associating them and their actions with criminal behaviour and engendering stigma against them. But as the world’s trusted source of information on current affairs, the main media houses are in the position to lead the conversation in an authoritative way, and should be mindful of the impact of their language.
Choosing the right words
In the context of the refugee situation in Europe and the Middle East, most news outlets refer to migrants and the migrant crisis, with editors believing that migrant is a neutral word describing the diverse range of people who are crossing borders.
This is in spite of criticism from leading news organisations, including Al Jazeera and The Washington Post, that the word “dehumanises” and is inaccurate; and from political commentators who affirm that what we are seeing is not a “migrant crisis” but a refugee movement.
While editors may choose to use the catch-all word based on the convenience of economical language, the problem with it is precisely that it is an umbrella term that fails to consider the diverse and complex range of reasons why people are uprooting in the first place.
The decision could be an economic one in countries with poor employment opportunities or extreme poverty. It could be to escape persecution where discrimination is institutionalised by repressive regimes. The decision could also be one of basic survival for those who find themselves in conflict situations and humanitarian disasters. These reasons can also overlap, as many who escape conflict are also facing poverty, and discriminated persons can have little chance of finding employment in their country.
Yet despite the vast differences, the word migrant and adjectives like illegal paint all these people in the same light. The result: public opinion that does not differentiate between economic migrants, asylum seekers or refugees, and is oblivious to the differing realities and needs of families and individuals.
'Good refugee' and 'bad migrant'
Some have expressed concern over the proposal to no longer use the term migrant because doing so would risk reinforcing the dichotomy of ‘good refugee’ and ‘bad migrant’. The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) has warned about the risk of attempting to distinguish between those who are ‘legal’ and ‘deserving’ from those who are ‘illegal’ and ‘undeserving’.
Writing for the Migrants' Rights Network, Judith Vonberg says we should reclaim the word migrant as a neutral description of people crossing borders from those who have infused it with negative connotations.
But this is easier said than done, according to a Washington Post journalist, who explains that "language evolves over time and how it evolves is usually outside of any one group's control."
An Al Jazeera editor says the word migrant has evolved into “reductive terminology” and a “blunt pejorative,” and illustrated how crudely language can affect a reader’s view of a person: “It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of migrants.”
From umbrella term to case-by-case descriptions
In view of this, some news organisations have already taken steps to add some nuance to their reporting of immigration-related stories. Al Jazeera English is no longer using the word migrant in the context of the Mediterranean, instead opting for refugee, where appropriate.
And in 2013 the Associated Press, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times all dropped the label illegal immigrant in the context of Central American migration to the United States as it does not accurately describe or apply in every news story.
Putting it down to a question of both accurate reporting and political correctness, the LA Times, for instance, recognises that “language matters and that our word choices must likewise be fair, nuanced and precise.” Its revised guidelines now advocate “taking a careful, case-by-case approach to all stories.”
Accurate language in this context is about factual reporting which respects people who, on the whole, are in desperate circumstances. In this sense, awareness of the context of a story is fundamental. The situation does not necessarily call for one word to be abandoned and for another to replace it outright; but for the media to ensure it uses appropriate and considered language in its reporting and descriptions of migrants or refugees or asylum-seekers or displaced persons.
But if in doubt about how to describe a person, as one Channel 4 News journalist suggested, “I think I might just call them people. Because that’s what they are, whatever the motive for their journey.”
"International Review of How Media Cover Migration" - Ethical Journalism Network
"When it comes to the migration story, words matter" - Global Policy
"Migrants or refugees: what's the right word?" - Channel 4 News
"Is it time to ditch the word 'migrant'?" - The Washington Post
"Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean 'migrants'" - Al Jazeera
"Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean 'migrants', but we should" - Migrants' Rights Network
"LA Times updates guidelines for covering immigration" - Los Angeles Times
"Statement on the refugee crisis" - International Federation of Social Workers