Cepeda column: The ‘normalization of hate’ during the Trump era
CHICAGO — In a 2016 blog post on the word “normalization,” the Merriam-Webster dictionary website described how Donald Trump’s candidacy made routine what used to be outlier behavior and language.
“The ‘normalization of hate,’ then, is not the removal of extreme and hateful rhetoric or views to fit the mode of modern discourse, but instead the redefinition of modern discourse to allow those extreme views to be considered normal,” the post observed.
More recently, a report underwritten by the immigrant-advocacy group Define American found that the reality-distortion field of the Trump administration has spread beyond the president’s tweets and statements and impacted the general population through traditional media as well.
For instance, the language used in immigration reporting at four of the country’s most prominent newspapers grew less tolerant from 2014 to 2018, with an uptick in the use of such dehumanizing and offensive terms as “illegal immigrant” and “alien,” according to the report, which is titled “The Language of Immigration Reporting: Normalizing vs. Watchdogging in a Nativist Age.”
Some people will look at those terms and see only factual words that are descriptive and are used in official government materials.
But it’s hard not to consider terminology like “anchor baby,” “immigrant/migrant invasion,” “flood of immigrants/migrants” and the grammarian’s bane, “illegals,” as what they are: othering. And racist.
Define American’s partnership with MIT’s Media Cloud and Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society looked for denigrating terminology and phrases, including those listed above, at The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and USA Today because they are widely seen as setting the standards and tone in immigration coverage.
The analysis uncovered that:
• All four publications showed a slight increase in stories containing at least one of the terms or phrases that used the word “illegal.”
• The increase is perhaps due solely to the expansion of immigration-related news events that have occurred during the Trump presidency. A related trend is the use of the terms in quotation marks, such as I’ve done here, which effectively distances the author from the usage but can still reinforce the offending words to the reader.
• While right-leaning and center-right-leaning news outlets had the highest percentage of stories with denigrating language between 2014 to 2018, “The Washington Post consistently used denigrating terms more often than The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times or USA Today.”
• The Los Angeles Times had the fewest uses of denigrating language in immigration stories and immigrants when compared to those three other major publications as well as a selection of other national news outlets and left and center-left leaning publications.
(My guess at The Los Angeles Times’ secret sauce? They have more people of color on their staff than most other publications and are in a metropolitan area in which Latinos are not just part of the fabric but also a more established part of the middle and professional classes than out East.)
There is some good news, though.
Despite what we think we know about fake news and how it goes viral, it turns out that — at least on Facebook — the researchers did not find evidence that stories with denigrating terms were more likely to be widely shared. Only 14% of the top 100 immigration-related stories that were shared on Facebook used denigrating terms.
That’s an important data point: It backs up the idea that news stories and headlines need not be sensational in order to gain traction with readers. Or, more importantly, to deliver the clicks and views necessary to continue funding the journalism we all want and need to maintain a functioning democracy.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that newspapers are businesses and rely on readers to come back time and again.
If you don’t like the language your daily media publications use when talking about immigrants, people of color or other marginalized groups, tell them.
Don’t simply go elsewhere; take a moment or two to drop the editor a letter that specifies how they can adjust their tone to not insult you or your loved ones.
Try it. Newspapers intrinsically want to be fair — and even newspaper editors know that the customer is always right.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda. (c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group
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