When it comes to coverage of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, when do "refugees" become "evacuees?"
For Bill Marimow, managing editor at National Public Radio, the shift came Sunday, while sifting through a collection of e-mails from listeners and a colleague questioning the use of the term "refugees" to describe those displaced by Katrina's swath of destruction.
"It's clear to me that the word has a strong connotation of fleeing to another country to avoid either an invasion, persecution or some kind of political oppression," said Marimow, who consulted several dictionaries and a few co-workers before releasing a two-paragraph statement discouraging use of the word. "As a way of being fair, you need to use the word that is the best word."
Reacting to similar overtones of meaning, many other news outlets have chosen to avoid use of the R-word in describing hurricane victims, including the Washington Post, CBS News, MSNBC, the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times. The National Association of Black Journalists on Tuesday criticized the word's "imprecise connotation and more specific application in the context of those seeking political refuge."
Looming in the background: concern that use of the word unfairly labels the largely poor, largely black Katrina victims as second-class citizens.
"It almost made them sound like they were some kind of alien group," said Mark Effron, vice president of news/daytime programing for MSNBC. "It just felt like the wrong word."
But other news outlets have chosen to keep using "refugee" in their coverage, including ABC News, the Associated Press and the New York Times. And they also cite the dictionary as proof.
"The dictionary definition is a displaced person. . . . It isn't necessarily someone who is displaced by international events or leaving a nation," said Paul Slavin, senior vice president of news at ABC. "There's no question that "refugee' bothers some people. I'm sure it bothers the Bush administration. But the word is not incorrect."
For critics of the word, the subtext is significant. With more than a week of media coverage featuring victims whose problems may have come from being overlooked by disaster planners and mainstream society, some outlets are wary of echoing such marginalization by using a controversial label.
"Frankly, I had been so focused on the scope of the catastrophe (initially), I hadn't had time to think much about language," said NPR's Marimow.
For Slavin, the back and forth over "refugee" echoes an earlier controversy over the term "looting" in coverage. "(Initially), we weren't making a distinction between people who were taking food or taking a TV," said ABC's Slavin. "That was a tough word because you just couldn't do the reporting necessary to determine the truth."
At the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, officials agreed the term "refugee" wouldn't apply to hurricane victims under international law, because they are not fleeing persecution in another country. But they also were alarmed to note that some Americans saw the term itself as an insult.
"It's troubling that people see refugee status as being a second-class status, because it shouldn't be," said Iain Levine, program director at Human Rights Watch, which highlights human rights abuses worldwide. "If ever there was a reason to treat people well, surely it's because they're fleeing their homeland on the worry of being persecuted."