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Refugee, evacuee, or something else?

AS IN OTHER news media outlets, the "refugee vs. evacuee vs. something else" debate has come up at the Missouri School of Journalism, and specifically at the Columbia Missourian.

While we don't have a formal policy on "refugee," the informal one that we've come up with on the fly is to avoid its use in favor of "evacuee." I'm familiar with the argument that the dictionary says a refugee is one who seeks refuge after being dispossessed of home and/or belongings. But it's important to recognize that the dictionary is not the only arbiter of meanings; it is only a historical document for the meaning of a word at the time the dictionary was printed. Dictionary (1995) is not dictionary (1999) is not dictionary (2005), and dictionary (2005) hasn't had a chance to catch up to the context of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Nor is the dictionary, no matter how current, the sole official definer of meanings. The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines "refugee" as:
 "A person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual
 residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her
 race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group
 or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/
 herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for
 fear of persecution."

Though it's difficult to pin down a universal meaning for anything, it's much easier to pin down specific meanings as defined by the people affected by words. That a Columbia group representing a predominantly black and poor constituency urged our executive editor twice to not use "refugee," the second time emphatically, demonstrates how seriously some people take this debate. Many veteran editors I know in the industry say, "Who the hell are these people, trying to tell me what to print in my newspaper?" Does anybody detect a signal reaction here? My newspaper did not respond immediately to the group. We editors and reporters instead discussed language issues on their merits, setting aside momentarily any attempt at pressure from the outside. But I digress.

In addition to lexical definitions, which may or may not be logical, we also have affective definitions. Each person's emotional and mental states being unique, we have a potentially infinite range of affective definitions for words. And those who have just suffered a stressful and catastrophic act of God that forced them from their homes aren't likely to listen much to the logical definitions. Many just know that they hurt, and many don't like being called refugees when their nerves are already rubbed raw by the disaster, as well as by the notion that they have been abandoned because of their minority status.

Blacks in poverty and liberal leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson aren't the only aggrieved parties who have voiced opposition to the term "refugee." Take a jog through the blogosphere and you'll find conservatives accusing the Liberal Media Conspiracy of using the politically charged term just to make President Bush look bad. And heading into the neutral zone (if one suspends one's disbelief for a moment regarding the notion that journalists are "unbiased," which of course I know isn't the case), the National Association of Black Journalists has requested that the term "refugee" be avoided in favor of "evacuee." That a broad spectrum of viewpoints, black and white, conservative and liberal and points in between, have voiced their disdain for "refugee" seems to indicate a social contract in the making about what constitutes acceptable usage. And that, of course, could change tomorrow. Just yesterday, a reporter remarked that a New Orleanian staying with family here in central Missouri told him, "You should call me a refugee or a victim, because that's what I am." Is-of-identity aside, this shows that some have embraced "refugee," whatever the reason and perhaps because they feel it's the best way for people in power to recognize the extent of the problems in Katrina's aftermath and get motivated to fix them.

Given my own druthers, I would opt not to generalize those affected by Hurricane Katrina and other calamities in favor of terms specific to each person in a story. Not all from New Orleans lost their homes. Not all victims of the storm were from New Orleans. And not all who lived through Katrina like being called "victims," instead seeing themselves as "survivors." This whole situation presents a lesson in the ladder of abstraction.

This story and the discussion of proper terms, to me, has been as much a matter of journalistic ethics as a practical exercise in general semantics. Why ethics? My values as a journalist lead me to adopt the Hippocratic dictate, "first, do no harm." If the term "refugee" does psychological harm to some people, and another term that is more or less the same does not do so, it's best to use the latter.

"Evacuee" may underemphasize the consequences the people of the hurricane zone face, but it seems less abstract than the White House's other term of choice, "displaced person." It also seems to do the least harm, and as a result, it has gained traction in the news media.


* Michael J. Fuhlhage teaches at the Missouri School of Jouranlism. Adapted from a posting on the Institute of General Semantics online message board.
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Author:Fuhlhage, Michael J.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:Katrina taught us all lessons.
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