Listeners Comment on Immigration, Rumsfeld

One of the signs at NPR that a news topic has attracted significant listener interest is when the story is given its own place on the NPR Web site.

This is certainly the case regarding the question of immigration. For the past few weeks, Congress attempted to address this growing issue which has assumed enormous importance in this election year. More than 11 million people in the United States now fall into this limbo status. The continued presence and legal future of these individuals is uncertain.

NPR has reported on this story from a variety of angles – political, ethical, legal and humanitarian. The NPR Web site has done a good job of pulling all these angles together in one concise place on the Web site.

Some listeners expressed appreciation for NPR’s coverage. But as with other hot issues, questions are raised by other listeners about the words NPR uses and the different points of view it allows to be heard.

Paul Sundberg is one of those who want NPR to choose its words more carefully:

I find myself increasingly exasperated at the careless (or perhaps intentional) misuse of the word “immigrant” in recent NPR news stories… The word “immigrant” and “immigration” in nearly every sentence and context means (unmistakably) “undocumented Latino immigrant” and “illegal Latino immigration”. This usage is dishonest, manipulative, or just linguistically careless…

It would be helpful and journalistically responsible, therefore, if NPR news editors monitored all occurrences of the unmodified words “immigrant” and “immigration”, modifying them when what is meant is specifically and exclusively “undocumented immigrant” and “illegal immigration”.

Listener Dale Lessick wishes NPR would get past the emotional messages:

NPR needs to get a more objective set of stories on this issue. Start asking experts who STUDY policy impacts to predict what the likely consequences could be of the different options. PLEASE, no more opinions from people who feel strongly about the issue, but really have no idea what they’re talking about. Get more economists to talk about local versus national impacts the probable impact on the labor force at the various skill levels, etc.

Another listener, Ned McCune wants NPR to look beyond staged events and focus on the issues:

Some Americans, like me, are appalled by the idea that illegal aliens demonstrating in the streets might sway our Congress as it debated immigration reform. Granted, the demonstrators, by turning out, have earned the right to be heard, but they have also made an impression, and you might balance your news with comments from the citizenry.

Explanatory, But Not Partisan

Finding ways to explore the issue that is explanatory but not partisan is one of the difficulties in reporting this highly emotive story.

While NPR has (correctly in my opinion) avoided loaded terms such as “illegals” or “illegal aliens” as being overly charged and largely inaccurate to describe all of the people affected, there still is no word or phrase that can be used without fear of objection by someone in this debate.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists has put out a helpful glossary of terms that is very useful and some of the NAHJ’s recommendations are being used, coincidentally by NPR.

A number of NPR and member-station journalists asked that NPR put out a guide of which terms and phrases are preferred on NPR. Vice President for News Bill Marimow says that common sense should guide journalists, rather than any specific dos-and-don’ts:

When there is only one word which precisely and accurately describes a situation, we will use that. But when there is a range of choices, we prefer that journalists use their common sense and choose words that describe the situation with accuracy, thoroughness, fairness and sensitivity.

My own suggestion is that the word that seems to be the most accurate but least incendiary is “undocumented.” The debate seems to be about whether people who come to the United States have some recognizable legal status, signified by their possessing the proper documents. To me, that’s what the core of the debate is all — or mostly — about. Anything else sounds like advocacy to me.

Calls for Rumsfeld’s Resignation

Recent calls for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation have also provoked listener responses.

An excellent interview on “All Things Considered” by Michele Norris with one of the dissidents, retired Major General John Riggs, was followed by a commentary from Daniel Goure of The Lexington Institute, a think tank that specializes in military matters.

“Hollow and lacking…”

Some who contacted me felt that Norris was too harsh on General Riggs. Listener Steven Fruhwirth was equally incensed by the choice of Daniel Goure who followed the interview:

I was infuriated today by comments on All Things Considered (4/13/06) by a defense analyst from the Lexington (Institute), regarding calls for Donald Rumsfeld to step down. I know that you have stated previously that, using conservative voices is necessary to achieve balance in a story. However, this speaker was not just a run-of-the-mill conservative voice. He was a former colleague of Rumsfeld who was allowed to deliver a lengthy diatribe about what a great guy Rumsfeld is and how we are so lucky to have someone with so much courage. It was so hollow and lacking in any substance that I was truly shocked. I hope in the future your reporters will look a little harder for voices that at least have some credibility and provide thoughtful information. Why did they rely on a conservative think tank member instead of, for example a retired senior military official that supports Rumsfeld?

“The segment was balanced.”

Christopher Turpin is the Executive Producer of “All Things Considered.” I asked him if he plans to have another commentary to balance Goure’s.

I’m not planning on a balancing commentary. Two reasons:

1) The segment was balanced. The commentary followed a lengthy (exclusive) interview with a General calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation. While Michele did push back appropriately, the overall tone of the (interview) — Rummy should go — was unmistakable.

2) Overall, the tone of our Pentagon/Rumsfeld coverage has been critical of Rumfeld’s leadership of the Pentagon. For example, in the past couple of weeks we’ve had another General on (“All Things Considered”) calling for his head, while in his regular commentaries, Dan Schorr has repeatedly criticized the management of the Iraq War. Goure’s commentary — unpopular though it was with many of our listeners — provided a degree of balance.

Yes, but…

I agree with Turpin that the segment was balanced, but…if my e-mail inbox is anything to go by, NPR listeners are becoming increasingly reactive to partisan viewpoints. This is partly because events at home and abroad are getting the closer attention of news consumers in general and the public radio audience more particularly.

The approach of mid-term elections is also focusing the listeners on the issues in a way that did not seem to be happening even a few months ago.

Radio is a linear medium. That means it is difficult to know what else has been broadcast on any subject (unless you go to the NPR Web site). So while NPR editors accept a liberal or a conservative commentary for reasons of overall balance, listeners, without that broader perspective, are only hearing what’s in front of them.

NPR might keep this in mind and make a more conscious effort to help the listeners by telling them more frequently, and on the radio, how this balance is being achieved.

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