Elites “cluster in the coastal metropolitan areas of this economically stratified country.”
“The daily lives of a clan of bearded, well-armed, religious fundamentalists in this country’s most remote and least-developed areas might seem like unlikely source material.”
“The typical signs of state failure aren’t evident on the streets of this sleepy capital city.”
The three sentences above might read as dispatches from faraway lands, but they come from Slate’s series “If It Happened There,” which approached news in the U.S. with the same tone usually used by Americans covering events in other countries.
Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah used a similar approach in 2020 to highlight developments in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s murder: “Ethnic violence has plagued the country for generations, and decades ago it captured the attention of the world.”
Seeing ourselves and our neighbors described as “religious fundamentalists” or our nation described as “plagued” by generations of “ethnic violence” should give us pause, but it’s commonly how Western media approach news outside their own borders. It’s an approach that centers white, middle-class English-speakers — furthered by the editors who approve how news resources are deployed.
As history continues to unfold in Ukraine, it’s imperative that journalists think through the language we use. The way we report can engender compassion or it can lead to othering by reinforcing unconscious bias. Journalists seek to inform, but we need to be responsible about how we portray communities — especially if our audience might be unfamiliar with them.
A lengthy Twitter thread pulls together recent coverage that missed the mark. The Telegraph wrote, “War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.” A French journalist said: “We are in a European city and we have cruise missile fire as though we were in Iraq or Afghanistan. Can you imagine?” A CBS correspondent referred to Kyiv as “a relatively civilized, a relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city.”
As news develops, it’s imperative journalists stay attuned to word choices. This is critically important as internal displacement in Ukraine is causing some journalists to use “refugees” outside the legal definition of that word.
“Refugee carries with it very specific protections and rights. Additionally, only using the term refugee can undercount the number of people affected,” Northern Kentucky University journalism professor Steve Bien-Aimé said. “For example, refugee does not account for those who have been forcibly displaced but remain in the country.” UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, says refugees are “forced to cross an international border and seek safety in other countries” to avoid the risk of persecution or serious harm.
Bien-Aimé further cautions that “refugee” is not synonymous with “migrant” or “immigrant.”
Global Press Journal considers its style guide a living document, with an emphasis on “dignity and precision in international journalism.” For people forcibly displaced within their own borders, the guide recommends “internally displaced person.” There’s a note that this differs from Associated Press style.
Unless you work for AP, it isn’t necessary to adhere to AP style; even at AP, it’s important to have regular conversations about whether the stylebook reflects changes in the world. AP updated the spelling of Kyiv in 2019 “as an important adaptation because it is linked to Ukraine’s present status.”
Additional resources include the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association, which issued a statement earlier this week condemning “racist implications that any population or country is ‘uncivilized’ or bears economic factors that make it worthy of conflict.”
As journalists, we owe it to the people whose stories we are telling to treat them with the humanity they deserve. Global Press Journal notes that “precision and dignity are invariably linked.” We need to avoid shortcuts such as portraying Russia as the one-dimensional aggressor or sharing memes about the courage of Ukrainians. The issues — and the people involved — are multifaceted.
Journalists can help analyze and contextualize the complexities, and the thoughtful way to do that is to ask: “Is this how I would want to see something I care about covered?”