Fluent English – Racism in Mainstream Reporting

From Canada’s paper of record…

Speaking fluent English, he described the gruelling 42-day high-seas journey and talked of the deteriorating living conditions in his homeland. He also described his dismay at arriving in Canada only to be branded a potential terrorist and jailed for nearly three months.

Ah, the old “compliment”, “you speak such good English”, code for “I am so culturally and racially ignorant that the act of any non-white non Anglo-Saxon speaking English surprises and amazes me, and I am clueless enough to think of this statement as a compliment”. If the statement is made by a lay-person, I view it as an opportunity to educate. This represents the culmination of a long journey growing up in privileged middle class India and slowly accepting myself as a person of colour (different and yet to be written blog post). But, for a reporter specifically assigned to write about immigration and refugee claims, this is inexcusable, especially because the language of his testimony has no relevance to his story. It’s almost as if the reporter thinks that this person would be more deserving of Canadian sympathy if she lets us know that he speaks “fluent English” just like us!

The rest of the story is not too bad, it uses neutral language to chronicle the story of a heroic person’s struggle to first help the people around him, then finally make a risky journey across the world in search of a better life.

But wait, there’s more! The headline writer seems to have his or her own agenda as well (not captured in the website article, but see the Page One headline (captured on cellphone camera!):

Not bad, ” Tamil Migrant Sought Relief from Homeland Threats” – neutral, descriptive and to the point.

Now see the headline for the continuation:

Wow, “Militant Claims No Ties to Tamil Tigers”. Hello, what happened? When did migrant become militant, when did his statement become a “claim”, and what relevance do the Tamil Tigers have to this man’s refugee status? Is every Tamil a Tiger? (true story, playing pickup at the gym the other day, this guy asked me what my ethnicity was, then called me a Tiger, then got very defensive when I yelled at him!).

A writer’s bias becomes very evident in the choice of words used to frame statements. I always look for “said”, “asserted”, “claimed” as short forms for “we are reporting this statement, but here’s what we really think”.

This is not the first time headlines have made me scratch my head. This happens especially often in the world of science, as this blog post very ably documents. I once got into a brief email discussion with a reporter at the Raleigh News and Observer who was writing articles about undocumented workers. She would use “undocumented immigrant” (Good), “illegal immigrant” (Bad) and occasionally, “illegal alien” (Alien??) interchangeably. However, the headline would always contain the very pejorative one word “Illegals”. I asked her about it and her one line dismissal was that “she did not write the headlines”, which is a nice and casual shirking of responsibility! Since most people only see headlines anyway, the words stick. So, Tamil = Tiger, immigrant = illegal, etc.

It made me a little sad to see the story of good things (he survived and will have his refugee claim heard) happening to a good man reduced to a disgusting innuendo filled headline. For more on the Tamil refugee story, see this article. The Canadian government is using secret evidence to decide who gets to go free and who is detained. While some of the people on board this ship could possibly be linked to violence, secret trials and innuendo do not help anyone involved. The Canadian government should know this, given that its dealings with immigrants using the security certificate program have been criticized before. I understand and fully sympathize with the Canadian government’s position that this is a complex situation and each person needs to be dealt with carefully on a case by case basis, but secrecy is not necessary here.

1 comment for “Fluent English – Racism in Mainstream Reporting

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