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Tuesday, December 23, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/10/2013

What should we call folks who are in U.S. illegally?

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

Reader Becky Roth raised an interesting question about terminology. “I was saddened and disappointed to see the article [in the March 2 Blade] entitled “Illegal Immigrants see rules shift.”

What was written in the article was fine, she said, but she was upset at the term “illegal immigrant.”

“That is an offensive and dehumanizing phrase. Human beings are not illegal. They may be undocumented or out of legal status, but people are not illegal and it is sloppy to refer to them that way.”

She would prefer they be called “undocumented immigrants.”

This is a controversy that many newspapers and other publications are struggling with all across the nation. It has gotten sharper as focus on immigration issues has increased.

National Public Radio did a recent study of the two terms. It found that “illegal immigrant” had become such a politically charged term — in a negative way — that even some conservative Republican groups wanted it dropped in favor of “undocumented immigrant.”

President Obama has begun using undocumented immigrant. But NPR noted that this term, too, has political connotations; “it’s been the choice of activists in favor of reform.”

The radio network found a neutral party, Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts.

He doesn’t like either term. “Illegal immigrant,” he says, is a contradiction in terms, since the government defines “immigrant” as someone who is legally in this country.

But he thinks undocumented immigrant doesn’t fit either, because that term “makes it seem as though there’s an administrative mistake, as if a document wasn’t issued” when in fact, these are people who are breaking the law by being in this nation.

Professor Rosa suggests the term “unauthorized migrant,” instead. Your ombudsman likes that, except for one slight problem. Nobody is now using that term, and readers might be confused.

Kurt Franck, The Blade’s executive editor, says the policy on what term to use is under review. If and when The Blade makes a change, your ombudsman may comment further.

Several readers were moved by a tragedy last month: U.S. Air Force Sgt. Krista Meeks-Jones, formerly of Whitehouse and her husband Christopher were found dead of gunshot wounds in their home at Fort Knox, Ky. Their two small children were unharmed.

Reader Patrick McNamara wanted to know why an article about the incident had a photo of the wife but not the husband. Other media have reported the deaths were the result of a domestic dispute.

Mr. Franck, The Blade’s executive editor, said “we will have more information on this shooting” when the investigation concludes. However, the explanation for why the paper ran only one picture is a simple one: The Blade heard about the deaths when the woman’s family placed a paid obituary in the paper and supplied a photo.

“We did not have a photo of the man, and we were unable to get one from the base,” he said. Once the military’s investigation is complete, he said, The Blade will have more information.

A reader named Jim was irked because he has repeatedly e-mailed Blade sports writers Dave Hackenberg and Matt Markey and seldom received answers. He wanted me to get them to respond.

Well, I can’t do that. Over my years as ombudsman here, I’ve found that some Blade reporters are very good about responding to readers, and some others not so much. Some readers send nasty, obscenity-filled rants that don’t deserve any response. But many write intelligent comments or questions that deserve a reply. Frankly, I wish some of The Blade’s folks would be a little more responsive than they are. But there’s also a lot of truth in what Frank Corsoe, The Blade’s sports editor, told me:

“I will talk to Matt and Hack, but they can’t possibly contact all the people who contact them. That would mean a lot of e-mails and letters.” They do have to do their jobs, after all.

Latest word on the ongoing comment controversy: Some readers are still unhappy with The Blade’s policy to forbid anonymous online comments on news stories and to require those posting their thoughts to sign in via Facebook.

I don’t know Patrick Pexton, who completed a two-year stint as the Washington Post’s ombudsman a few weeks ago. But he said in his last column that the number one complaint he had received was “the Post's online comment system. ... I think the Post should move, as the Miami Herald did recently, away from anonymous responses to a system that requires commenters to use their real names and to sign in via Facebook. It would reduce the volume of comments but raise the level of discussion and help preserve The Post's brand.”

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610; or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an e-mail address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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