Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Refugee or evacuee?

Some news organizations -- including the Dallas Morning News, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Columbus Dispatch -- have stopped allowing the use of "refugee" to refer to displaced New Orleans residents.

No one argues against the fact that these are people seeking refuge. And they fit most dictionaries' definitions of what a refugee is. But people don't like the foreign-country connotations that come along with it.

Jesse Jackson and the NAACP's Brian Gordon spoke out against the word: "It is just wrong," Jackson said. "They are citizens displaced by a disaster."

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus took issue. Said Rep. Diane Watson of California:"'Refugee' calls up to mind people that come from different lands and have to be taken care of. These are American citizens."

The president even weighed in.
You know, there's a debate here about refugees. Let me tell you my attitude and the attitude of people around this table: The people we're talking about are not refugees. They are Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens.
It's not just talking heads. One story I read quoted a 60-year-old woman, Clara Rita, who said: "I can't stand people calling me a refugee. I am an American, and I love America. But right now things are bad."

Honestly, I think the arguments against using "refugee" are more damaging than actually using the term. As one blogger summed it up, they imply: Refugees are those foreign people in dirty little countries! These are Americans! There's nothing shameful about being a refugee. If anything, this might make us look at refugees throughout the world in a new light.

That being said, I don't think we should use the word, anyway. It doesn't matter if it's technically correct; it's become a distraction. Better to use "evacuee" or "survivor" or whatever instead and not make readers pause.

(But please don't adopt the preferred language of former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, who likes "citizen refugee.")

UPDATE: An AP story says the Washington Post and the Boston Globe have banned "refugee," as well.

AP and the New York Times are still using the word.
"We have not banned the word 'refugee,'" said [Times]spokeswoman Catherine Mathis. "We have used it along with 'evacuee,' 'survivor,' 'displaced' and various other terms that fit what our reporters are seeing on the ground. Webster's defines a refugee as a person fleeing 'home or country' in search of refuge, and it certainly does justice to the suffering legions driven from their homes by Katrina."

And William Safire shared his opinion, saying he didn't see any racial overtones.
"A refugee can be a person of any race at all," he said. "A refugee is a person who seeks refuge."

He first suggested using the term "hurricane refugees." After thinking it over, though, he said he would probably simply use the term "flood victims," to avoid any political connotations.
Any stories from newsrooms elsewhere?


At 2:39 AM, September 07, 2005, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

It seems word of the Washington Post's style change hasn't reached

Refugee's Suicide Attempt Diverts Flight

The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 6, 2005; 9:54 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A Hurricane Katrina refugee on Tuesday attempted suicide aboard a commercial flight bound for Washington, D.C., causing the plane to be diverted. ...

At 3:34 PM, September 08, 2005, Blogger Chris said...

CNN has clearly taken a stand; Lou Dobbs gave the issue a fair amount of time on last night's broadcast. As for the many typos and misspellings that follow, blame the transcript writer.

"You've heard on this broadcast, by the way, several people, including Reverend Jesse Jackson and others admonish us not to use the term refugee when describing the New Orleans citizen who have had to flee their homes. Jackson and others including President Bush have said or implied that term is racially insensitive.

"In my opinion, straightforwardly, Rev Jackson and President Bush are not entirely correct. The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines refugee as one who flees. The nation's foremost news organizations, including the Associated Press, "The New York Times" and this broadcast uses the term refugee when and where appropriate.

"The president, Jackson and others apparently think that news organizations created the term refugee just to describe victims of Hurricane Katrina. Hardly. Even a cursory review of reporting of such disaster of Hurricane Andrew, the 1993 midwestern floods and wildfires through the west have all prompted the use of the term refugee by news organizations. I'm proud to tell you that this network has resisted others telling them how to use words. Rejecting, in fact, the United Nations suggestion that we use, instead of refugee, the expression internally displaced persons. I love that one.

"We'll continue here to use the term on this broadcast where we think it is most descriptive. And unfortunately we realize that there are those who will try to establish their own bonifieds as politically correct and even racially sensitive in their view by conjuring up more nonsense about language when they should be focusing on reality and the concerns and care that all Americans have for our fellow citizens who need our help in New Orleans."


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