Sunday, January 14, 2018

Words Matter

            On Friday, I took a moment from my 11th- and 12th-grade journalism classes to make sure my students knew of the editorial decisions that newsrooms across the country had been faced with the day before. My students know that news media outlets all have their own style manuals, which includes a guide to which words the outlets consider vulgar and inappropriate for print. But sometimes, those rules must be broken.
            Thursday night, many news outlets decided to temporarily reverse their style rules regarding vulgar language by reprinting some words attributed to the president of the United States. According to numerous sources, the president had referred to certain nations as “shithole countries” when negotiating immigration law with other lawmakers during a Thursday meeting. He also had asked why we would want people from Haiti here in the U.S.
            This was not the first time that President Trump has spoken derisively of individuals from developing countries during immigration talks, according to sources who have attended meetings with him. In addition, the president has used incendiary words regarding other ethnicities and nations many times, particularly during his campaign speeches. His administration’s travel ban was developed to target a particular religion, as he had promised it would during his campaign. And his words after the Charlottesville tragedy revealed, at the very least, a clear concern with offending white supremacists.
            Due to the president’s dedicated track record of demeaning individuals who are not white or European, the news media was aware that it had a responsibility to continue reporting his approach to diversity and immigration. This included coverage of the president’s words. So when he took the shocking step of calling other nations a vulgar term on Thursday, most news outlets decided that reporting the exact words was essential to giving readers the full story. The president’s words serve as a reflection of the country he leads, and it was deemed essential that you and I know our leader is now comfortable with using “shithole” to describe would-be allies. Media outlets felt they owed us that level of specificity.
            I asked my students if they agreed with this choice, politics aside. Everyone who raised their hand said they did. The details mattered immensely here, they said. I encouraged them to keep following this story during the weekend.
            Tomorrow, we celebrate a man whose words inspired a nation and world, and whose leadership led not only to American freedoms but also to worldwide admiration for the promise of America. That promise, of a nation where all men and women are created equal, has not been fully realized, of course. We have seen this on numerous fronts, from race relations to immigration to sexual assault to educational segregation to voting laws. We have so much work to be done, which is part of the reason why Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become more and more a day of active service and reflection. But on that third Monday in January, we also have the chance to listen to King’s words and remind ourselves of just how much potential our nation has.
            And no matter your politics, it has typically been the case that the president of the United States uses words of maturity and dignity when speaking to that promise of American liberty. You could criticize the president’s agenda and executive orders, but you were likely to find no problems with his words when it came to representing the nation’s ideals.
            President Trump has promised, throughout his campaign and his presidency, to be a disruptor. That has involved clear challenges to laws that he disagreed with, but it has also involved a shift in the president’s use of language. He has used spoken word, social media and official statements in a form more befitting a barroom brawler than a chief executive. That is troubling to many, for sure, but in journalism it’s also news. It’s a shift whose impact we can’t assess quite yet, but which we must cover thoroughly. When someone chooses to alter the way in which the most visible country in the world presents itself to the world, that is a news story of the highest order. It means that for nearly every word Trump utters, reporters must share with us the policy details, the politics and – often most of all – the degree to which his words are taking us into unchartered territory.
            So yes, today it’s “shithole.” And tomorrow, we’ll see what’s next. My students get it. The words matter, and they must be covered. 

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