As the flood waters recede and rescue efforts continue, another type of storm has surfaced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The media’s use of the word “refugee” to describe the largely black and poor New Orleans’ hurricane victims has sparked impassioned discussions about race, poverty and media ethics.
Last week, after several prominent African-American leaders and others protested, The Washington Post, National Public Radio and The Wall Street Journal began regularly using the term “evacuee.”
“Some news organizations took a reasoned decision and decided it’s not the best use of the word, “ said Scott Libin, a former news director and a faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Local reporters and editors also faced the issue.
Columbia Daily Tribune managing editor Jim Robertson said he has not received any complaints about the newspaper’s use of the word “refugee.” But, he said, his staff has discussed the issue at length.
“We feel like the dictionary definition in Webster’s Collegiate fits this situation,” Robertson said. “Our business is to use the right word and be concise. I’m not sure I have to defend a word someone else has decided is pejorative.”
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines a refugee as “a person who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution.”
However, other dictionaries offer up different definitions.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a refugee as “one who, owing to religious persecution or political troubles, seeks refuge in a foreign country” or “someone driven from his home by war or the fear of attack or persecution; a displaced person.”
Recently, Nathan Stephens, a member of the First Ward Ambassadors, sent an e-mail to Columbia Missourian Executive Editor Tom Warhover, threatening to boycott the paper if it continued to use the word.
“I am again requesting that you require your reporters to not call the people of New Orleans and other areas affected by Hurricane Katrina ‘refugees,’” Stephens stated in the e-mail. “As African-Americans, we find the term refugees offensive but more importantly, the individuals affected by the hurricane find it offensive.”
Warhover said Stephens’ comments weren’t totally unexpected. He said he had heard about the debate, and forwarded Stephens’ e-mail to his reporters and editors to start a dialogue.
“The common understanding of the Missourian staff is that regardless of what we think, the people involved think it’s a pejorative term, and therefore we should avoid it,” Warhover said.
Evacuees, both black and white, who visited the Disaster Relief Center at Columbia’s Parkade Plaza said they had varied reactions to the use of the word to describe their circumstances.
“I pay taxes to this country, you dig?” said Rodman Marine, a black New Orleans resident who escaped before Katrina hit. “What is so different between you and me? I am not a refugee. ... They got the wrong term on that.”
Johnnie Esry, a white resident of Gulfport, Miss., said the term seems to fit people who do not have a home to go back to. He said he plans to return to Gulfport in roughly two weeks, once the mold is removed from his house.
“Those people who have no homes to return to, and are not going back, are refugees,” Esry said.
Abraham Luethe, a MU student who fled Sudan seeking political asylum, said he has a problem with the term for different reasons.
“Maybe the right word that needed to be used was ‘displaced persons,’” Luethe said. “They were displaced within their own country.”
Luethe said he agrees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which defines a refugee as a person fleeing from persecution or war who crosses an internationally recognized border. Under this definition, the term does not apply to Katrina’s survivors, Luethe said.
“When I first heard ‘refugee’ on television, I was like, ‘What?’” Luethe said. “And the next thing I said is that these news people need to learn English. If you just open up the dictionary, it will tell you what the word means.”
Akbar Virmani, a political science professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., fled Uganda to the United States in 1978 as a result of civil war. Virmani said, refugees can refer to anybody seeking refuge from political persecutions, earthquakes or hurricanes. He said labels such as “refugee,” “freedom fighter” and “terrorist” mean different things to people, depending on their perspective; they are never neutral.
“In Katrina’s case, a term like ‘fellow citizens’ could have defined them as in,” Virmani said. “Refugee defined them as out. The best way to understand labeling is to examine who is labeling whom, when, why, how and importantly where.”
The term refugee can promote both tolerance and division, depending on the circumstances. Under guidelines set by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the term entitles one to international aid. At the same time, it can be negatively received.
“The stigma that comes with the label ‘refugee’ is not particular to the victims of Katrina,” Virmani said. “The stigma is that you don’t belong, your government has persecuted you and is unable to take care of you.”
First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton of Columbia said she feels the term can have unfavorable connotations. She said she thinks Americans are disconnected from the refugee experience.
“I think people look down on refugees,” she said. “We look at those people as being from over there, and then we don’t have to respond.”
The government’s slow response to Katrina left many Gulf Coast residents feeling abandoned, Virmani said.
“On top of being neglected and not being on someone’s priority list, the insult to injury is to call them ‘refugees’,” he said.
The fervor about the use of the word, as well as major media outlets’ willingness to adopt a different term to avoid offending people, underscores the power of language.
Even some who defended use of the word said they do not doubt the importance of the discussion.
“I don’t happen to agree it’s racist or inaccurate,” Libin said. “But if we choose or choose not to use the word, we need to be consistent and be prepared to explain how we make the decision.”