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Wrestling With A 'Tsunami' Of Overwrought Language About The Immigrant Children

Delcia Lopez
Texas Tribune
Many of the children who've crossed the border illegally this year have arrived without their parents

As the nation focuses its attention on unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, politicians and the media keep reaching for more extreme words to describe them -- the "waves" of children "pouring" across the border in a "tsunami" of a humanitarian "crisis." KERA's Rick Holter talks with NPR's standards and practices editor, Mark Memmott, about this verbal escalation.

Interview Highlights: Mark Memmott...

…on loaded language:

“Well, we certainly should be talking about controlling our language because you want to report accurately what is happening, at the same time you want to use words that convey the right images but you don’t want to be alarmist either.”

Credit NPR
Mark Memmott is supervising senior editor for standards and practices at NPR.

…On the use of the word ‘crisis’:  

“Well, I know in our newsroom, we’re constantly checking the dictionary. That may sound funny, but we’re always looking for the right words to convey what it is that’s happening. ‘Crisis’ is a word that conveys a situation that needs to be addressed. It’s a serious situation, not a catastrophe, perhaps not a disaster, not a tsunami of people coming across the border, but a serious situation that needs to be addressed.

"And when you’ve got hundreds, [in] some places thousands of kids who need help right now, that does seem to be a crisis, so that word moved from the politicians and this is one case where I think the media is okay."

…on how to describe the children:

“One thing we discuss a lot is when should you and shouldn’t you stick labels on individuals or groups. If you do, you really need to be careful that it’s the right one. Or think about whether it’s better to describe the actions. These are young people who have crossed the border illegally without their parents. These are young people who have been sent to the United States from other countries by their parents and have entered illegally. I know it takes a few more words, I know on radio that sometimes that’s hard but a few more words sometimes can really help the listener get through it and frankly protect the news outlet’s credibility.”

…on NPR’s approach:

“We talk about it a lot. Each day there’s a discussion, you know the day before we might have been comfortable with using this sort of language. Well, maybe the situation has changed so we talk about it again. It’s an evolving, sort of ongoing debate within the newsroom whenever you have stories like this playing out.”

Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.