Words have power.
It’s a familiar concept, particularly in journalism. But recently, it’s an idea that has slipped my mind. Words seem somewhat diminished these days, in the fervor of fake news and press conferences defined by clarification, corrections and redefinition.
When Graham Hudson, professor of criminology at Ryerson University, took the stage at the tech-in, the power of words came back to me.
He talked about being critical of terms like “bogus refugee” and “queue jumper” and to understand the more nuanced distinction between a convention refugee and protected person. In doing so, he reminded me of the importance of specificity and being precise, because which words you use do matter.
Hudson asked, “How does the state know who is and who is not a refugee until they hear their claim?” His answer was that it can’t know – because each case is individual and has to be reviewed on its own merits.
Words matter because as journalists we should strive to be as accurate and precise as possible. But they also matter because when you’re covering anything, but particularly migration, you are covering people. People who have unique stories that deserve to be understood precisely.
Later, Hudson spoke about sanctuary cities, their effectiveness and the public opinion that migrants drain resources in the system.
Hudson’s response was: ” How can they drain the system if they are not entitled to use it?” It was both a question and a simple, clear answer – something we need more of.
The teach-in took me back to lesson of the power of words and to the schoolyard “sticks and stones” rhyme. It reminded me of why I always disliked it so much, because words do have the power to hurt. That’s why we have to get them right.