Tuesday, April 28, 2009


This one looks like another example of how editors extend (or overextend) style rules. Clearly, it's both inaccurate and rude to suggest that all Spanish-speakers are Mexicans, so the editor reached for the polite way to say "Mexican" and got "Latino." Which, unfortunately, misses the point.

The lede is about the flu strain that has spread "from Mexico"; the people who are concerned are residents "with ties to Mexico"; the first Real Person quoted has family just outside the Mexican capital; an advocate quoted later in the story observes that "most people in the country illegally come from rural areas of Mexico and not Mexico City." The concerns in the story are legitimate, but more to the point, they're legitimately Mexican.

Cultural sensitivity in language tends to get a bad name, even in that alleged hotbed of creeping socialism known as the American newsroom. It's often derided as euphemistic, inaccurate or imprecise, even when it's none of those things. (I'm still waiting for someone to explain exactly what "African American" is supposed to be a euphemism for.) This hed, though, misses the boat precisely by being imprecise; it sounds as if it's about culture, but it needs to be about a country.

Sensitivity is an important attribute of language, but it's not the only attribute. By way of underscoring that, here's the last graf of the story:

Dr. Stephen Keener, medical director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said the disease could be carried by anyone. He said many non-Latinos traveling to Mexico could pick up the virus.

Here, I think, we are sinking into euphemism -- not the writer's or the speaker's, but the audience's. As the comments on the story* attest, for at least some of the readership, "Latino" is a Liberal Media euphemism for "dope-sucking, job-stealing illegal immigrant." If the idea is that flu can be brought into the sorority house by Buffy and Muffy as readily as by the guy mopping the kitchen after dinner, we could make that point more clearly -- as, indeed, "carried by anyone" does -- without implying that Chileans have some sort of immunity that isn't available to, say, Lithuanians. (And without providing cover to the biases of the knuckle-draggers.)

* Further evidence that the "comment" function should be disabled on all news stories, from now unto the end of time.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Yeah, the guys sneaking across the border into New Zealand from Mexico... oh, wait.

This thing is being spread by air travellers, not people walking through the desert.

5:56 AM, April 29, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Right -- though from my perch in the Midtown bureau (a couple miles north of the 17th and 19th busiest US land border crossings), I'd offer a slightly broader interpretation: You're more likely to catch it from People Wearing Ties than from People Wearing Sombreros. (Unless it's, like, somebody from Columbus who bought a sombrero at the Mexico City airport.)

11:08 AM, April 29, 2009  
Blogger Denise said...

I think it's more a function of, Mexicans didn't fit into the count, and the headline writer figured (incorrectly) that the two words were interchangable.

6:13 PM, May 02, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Good point, but I'm not sure about 'interchangeable' -- I'm still inclined to guess that the hed writer thought one was the nicer version and one less nice. More like 'undocumented' and 'illegal': different frames for conveying the same status.

10:12 PM, May 03, 2009  

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