There's A Sad Reason 'Migrants,' Not 'Immigrants,' Is The Word Being Used

Apr 25, 2015
Originally published on April 26, 2015 1:55 pm

As NPR and other news outlets report about the hundreds of people killed this month when the ship they were on went down off the Libyan coast, the stories are referring to those who died as "migrants."

There's a case to be made that the word "refugees" also applies. A refugee, according to Webster's New World College Dictionary, is "a person who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution."

Among those on the ship that sank, and the other vessels sailing from Northern Africa to Southern Europe, were people fleeing the war in Syria and persecution in places such as Somalia.

It's fair to say that almost anyone who takes the risks associated with these trips is likely to be desperate and is seeking refuge. But to label all those aboard the ships as refugees may not be accurate. The word migrants, however, fits. Webster's says that to migrate is to "move from one place to another." A migrant, in turn, is "a person, bird, or animal that migrates."

The word also conveys what is happening: Large numbers of people are on the move, looking for homes. They are migrating across hundreds or thousands of miles.

The word "immigrants" is not being used in most media reports. There's a sad reason. To immigrate, Webster's notes, is to "come into a new country, region or environment ... esp. in order to settle there."

Tragically, the hundreds who died this month did not reach their destinations.

Note: We know there are also legal definitions of the words migrant and refugee. The International Organization for Migration has posted its glossary here. This post and Saturday's "Word Matters" conversation, however, are about the way news outlets use the words, not international agencies.

Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor. He co-hosted The Two Way from its launch in May 2009 through April 2014.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. More than 800 people died last weekend when a boat they were taking to flee the war, suffering and terror in the Middle East, capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. Those who died were characterized by most news outlets as migrants. They came from almost 10 countries, including conflict zones like Syria and Somalia. Why do news organizations, often including NPR, say migrants? We're joined now by Mark Memmott, NPR standards and practices editor. Mark, thanks so much for being back with us.

MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

SIMON: Why do we say the victims were migrants and not say refugees?

MEMMOTT: Well, let's work through the words. Refugees leave their homes or their countries to escape persecution, or they might be seeking safety because of wars, as you said. Some may have been forced from their homes by armed forces. Certainly, many of the people who we've been hearing or reading about are refugees, but they've been coming from more than a dozen countries, and they've been coming for many different reasons; some of them maybe just to seek better lives. The word migrants fits for them all. As the dictionary says, a migrant is a person who moves from one place to another, and in particular, it's a word applied to those who leave one country to settle in another. We haven't been using the word immigrants for a very sad reason. The people who didn't make it to Europe - the hundreds who drowned - never got the chance to immigrate. One immigrates when you arrive in a new country.

SIMON: Does the choice of word frame the story in a certain way for people?

MEMMOTT: Yes, and I think it also helps them understand what the situation - you know, the word migrants puts a picture in listeners' minds. These are people who are on the move; many have traveled hundreds, thousands of miles. And as we learn more about the individuals or the families who've been part of this migration and the reasons they've left their homes, we probably will refer to many of them as refugees. But without knowing the specifics of their stories, the word that seems to fit best when reporting about them is migrants.

SIMON: Let's move on to another topic. The New York Times recently ran into some trouble with one of its sources in an article they had about the rise in popularity of vaping - electronic cigarettes - e-cigarettes. Help us understand this story if you could.

MEMMOTT: Well, I should begin by saying that, you know, as the expression goes, there, but for the grace of God, go I, or in this case, we. What happened to The Times could happen to NPR and actually may have happened. We just don't know it. Here's the story. A Times reporter posted a message on Twitter. It was a callout. She wanted to hear from - and I'm paraphrasing her words - teens who vape and who are willing to talk about it with a reporter twice their age. One of the people who got in touch with The Times made up a good story. He pretended to be an 18-year-old high school senior from Mississippi who enjoys a particular flavor endorsed by a rapper known as Lil Ugly Mane. The Times found out about the hoax after the pretender bragged about it on Twitter.

SIMON: So a prank.

MEMMOTT: A prank - he wanted to see if he could get it into The Times, see how far he could go. In fact, he said afterward that he had an even greater story to tell, but he liked the reporter so much that he didn't press it too far.

SIMON: (Laughter) News organizations use social media callouts these days, including this one.

MEMMOTT: Yes. I mean, we want to find, quote, unquote, "real people." We need to talk to those who have been affected by events. We can't be everywhere. Social media callouts are another way of reaching out. The thing is there's hard work to be done once the responses start coming in. Identities need to be verified. Stories need to be checked out. Claims need to be challenged sometimes. We don't want to be trolled, as the hoaxers say, and end up reporting someone's fun but fabricated tales.

SIMON: One of the things I like about social media callouts is that - assuming you can verify the story - you can get a diversity of experience that you don't get 'cause I - we both remember the days when, for example, if you needed to talk to a citizen about, let's say, filing his or her taxes, you would literally walk out into the newsroom and say, you know, anybody here know someone who has to get a tax extension? And you'd wind up with a shoe salesman from Winnetka because some guy who worked in the newsroom knew him or her.

MEMMOTT: Right, a guy who knows a guy would put you in touch with an accountant who then would track down one of his clients who's willing to talk - a classic way of finding people. This is kind of the - similar in some ways. You're putting out a call for input, if you will. You're putting out a call for people to get in touch. The thing is it's just another tool, and the key is what happens after the responses start coming in. That's where the skill we call reporting comes in. The old rule in newsrooms, as you know, Scott, is if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. We need to remember that when we do these social media callouts, too. We need to check that person out.

SIMON: Mark Memmott - NPR standards and practices editor. You can write to him directly at word matters - all one word - Thanks very much, Mark.

MEMMOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.