Journalism experts in ethics and diversity explain their reactions to President Trump’s ‘go back’ tweet

July 16, 2019 and
Category: Ethics & Trust

Kelly McBride is the senior vice president of The Poynter Institute and the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter. Doris Truong is Poynter’s director of training and diversity. 

Doris Truong: When the president of the United States says that four congresswomen should “go back … from (where) they came,” news organizations have a responsibility to call his language what it is: It’s racist.

Kelly McBride: Yes, that language is clearly racist. However, before calling it racist, each newsroom has to examine its implicit editorial promise to its audience and then ask: What is the journalistic purpose of the story?

Truong: It’s uncomfortable to point out that someone’s language is racist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are trying to interpret the motivations of the speaker.

Historically, suggesting that someone should go back where they came from implies that the target of that language does not belong. Such words have been used throughout U.S. history to marginalize and silence people. This is also the language of playground taunts, and it’s used when the speaker has no stronger argument.

It’s important for news consumers — particularly people who might never have had the phrase hurled at them — to understand that it’s hurtful and deliberately “othering.” This harks back to anti-immigrant sentiment and efforts to depict some groups, especially people of color, as foreigners who are not part of the whole — they are “the other.” “Go back” suggests that the speaker can decide who fits in; the other person is an outsider without value.

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McBride: If your goal is to educate people about the history and meaning of that phrase, “Go back where you came from,” you need to draw them into your story and then explain why and how these words reflect a racist history and intention.

Truong: One of the main values of journalism is its explanatory nature, but for people with short attention spans, we need to make the point quickly and accurately. Saying that Trump tweeted something that some people find objectionable doesn’t really differentiate this incident from many that preceded it.

McBride: So what do you think the most accurate headline is?

Truong: “In racist tweet, Trump suggests 4 congresswomen ‘go back’ where they came from.”

McBride: That works for everyone who already understands the racist nature of the tweet. But what about the people who are ignorant about the history and etymology of the phrase? If you alienate them from your story, you will fail in your journalistic obligation to educate them.

Truong: It’s just as important to be mindful of the audience that knows full well how offensive the phrase is. Not calling it racist risks alienating them.

My friends — journalists and non — were motivated to share painful stories of the first time they were told to “go back from where they came.” But this is a phrase that, even before Sunday, is lobbed when adults have disagreements.

In 2017, trolls mistakenly identified me as having been at a Senate confirmation hearing. Some people who saw another Asian woman near a public official decided she was a spy (an assumption that she has allegiance outside the United States), and some of the invective that came my way insisted that I should “go back” (for the record, I was born in California).

If news media continue to tiptoe when language is not even coded enough to be considered a dog whistle, are we any better than a euphemism generator?

McBride: It must be very painful for people of color, many of whom heard those same words, to hear the president of the United States use them. And I don’t think media organizations should try to smooth over the rawness that the president’s tweet evokes. Instead, I want journalists to shine a light on that pain.

The news coverage on these tweets has evolved since they were first posted Sunday by President Trump, as has the conversation. Which news stories speak to you? What has the conversation been like in your newsroom? Let us hear from you at kmcbride@poynter.org and dtruong@poynter.org, or tag us on Twitter: @kellymcb and @DorisTruong.