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Fight the Faux Pox



I blurt things out at inopportune times. It is a disease I've had from birth, which I call footinmouthitis, also known as the Faux Pox. Some people who know me find this unnerving and avoid me. Others find it honest and refreshing. They say I tell it like it is.

So I was glad that the Times-Standard called for more telling it like it is in its Roast last week of the U.S. Forest Service for being too politically correct in a press release on a pot bust on public lands. The Forest Service said it had arrested a "displaced foreign traveler" from Mexico. The Times-Standard said: "The man apparently was an illegal alien doing something illegal, and damaging, on public land. The Forest Service should tell it like it is."

The problem with telling it like it is is that it negates the sensitivity of those who hear or read what you say. When you have the Faux Pox, you almost always regret what you just said, because you see the face of the person you just said it to and you realize you made the person feel lousy. I admire those who have a better way with the instantaneous word -- who can say what I mean to say, but in a way that allays feelings. I struggle over my written words. It will take me three hours to write these 1,000. That's about one Word document page an hour and after much thought. People still will misread what I intended to say. So while I think the Forest Service's wording was goofy, I applaud its attempt at being more sensitive to the difficult issue of undocumented people caught growing marijuana on public lands.

Nationally, illegal immigration is as hot button of an issue as you can find. Last year I found myself in so heated an argument with a longtime friend in Malibu over the issue that I wanted to toss him into his million dollar pool. And in a class on mass media, one student walked out when a class discussion over how the media reports the issue turned acrimonious. These days, the legality of marijuana might come in a close second.

While I understand people's discomfort with political correctness, I find that problems often start with language, because words frame and shape our thoughts. Wording often connotes judgment -- approval or disapproval. This is particularly problematic for journalists, who are supposed to stay neutral on issues they report.

Labels that agencies often use tend to dehumanize problems, no more so than with the term "alien." That's a word I associate with the dripping-toothed, belly-hatched monster that impregnated Ellen Ripley in Alien 3. In another context, someone who is alienated is a social outcast.

Someone who is caught growing marijuana on public lands is a suspected criminal. That he is of Mexican nationality means that he is a Mexican national suspected of criminal activity. In this case you can't say he is an illegal immigrant because it isn't clear he is trying to immigrate. He might be either a low-paid or extremely high-paid seasonal farmworker. He may or may not be tied to organized crime. So far, all we have is the information from a skimpy press release full of police speculation.

That gets us to the larger problem. Too many journalists and bloggers rely too heavily on government and corporate press releases without checking the facts or even changing the wording.

Consider another article in the Times-Standard on July 7. John Driscoll reported that Arcata police arrested a man suspected of sexually-assaulting a woman near the Arcata Sports Complex and were looking for a second man "described as a white or American Indian male." "White" I understand. It is the color of skin and so is an accepted part of a description. But I don't quite know what an "American Indian" description is. More important, to describe someone as white in a predominantly white community does not make every white male suspect. But to describe a suspect as American Indian in a community with a very small percentage of Native Americans could make suspect any and all Native American males in the community. For that reason, journalists are supposed to refrain from race in a description unless the description is specific enough to actually help identify a culprit.

In May, the paper ran a story without a byline, which likely means that it came straight off a press release, about two apparently unrelated home invasion robberies in Arcata. The story described the suspects in one of the robberies as three black men. Now, in that case, police described the men in some detail: "The first was about 6 feet tall with a medium build. The second was 'average height' with a medium build and corn-rowed hair. The third was about 5 feet, 10 inches tall with a medium build and dreadlocks." And it said that they fled in a "newer blue Honda Fit."

Here the problem was that a careful reading of the information seemed to suggest that the victims knew the suspects. If that were the case, the police could simply ask readers to help them find the specific people, rather than anyone who just looks like them. Failing to do that makes suspect any black man in the community who is of average height and has corn rows. The next day, the paper ran a follow-up story by reporter Matt Drange, in which police said they identified one of the three men, who turned out to be an acquaintance of one of the victims. So police did have names to the faces.

We live in an overwhelmingly Caucasian community. While political correctness often feels awkward and sometimes silly or stupid, I think we need to be more sensitive to the feelings of underrepresented people in our community. And efforts to be more sensitive, regardless of how goofy they are, should be toasted and not roasted.

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University.


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