Posted in Behind the News

Describing what’s happening at the US border

, by John Daniszewski

With immigration and the U.S. border back in the news, it is especially imperative for the AP to consistently use accurate and neutral language in its coverage along with giving proper context to border numbers given the political rhetoric on the topic.

There has been a rise in unaccompanied minors crossing the southwestern U.S. border in the last two months since the start of the Biden administration. This follows a monthly increase in border crossings each month since April, or the last eight months of the Trump presidency. The current level of crossings in 2021 is roughly equal to the last upturn that occurred in mid-2019.

The current event in the news — a sharp increase in the arrival of unaccompanied minors — is a problem for border officials, a political challenge for Biden and a dire situation for many migrants who make the journey, but it does not fit the classic dictionary definition of a crisis, which is: “A turning point in the course of anything; decisive or crucial time, stage, or event,” OR “a time of, or a state of affairs involving, great danger or trouble, often one which threatens to result in unpleasant consequences [an economic crisis].”

Migrant families from Guatemala rest as they wait at an intake area set up by the U.S. border patrol in Roma, Texas, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Therefore, we should avoid, or at the least, be highly cautious, about referring to the present situation as a crisis on our own, although we may quote others using that language.

If using the word “crisis,” we need to ask of what and to whom. There could be a humanitarian crisis if the numbers grow so large that officials cannot house the migrants safely or in sanitary conditions. Migrants may face humanitarian crises in their home countries. In theory, there could be a security or a border crisis if officials lose control of the border, allowing people to enter unencumbered in large numbers. But, in general, avoid hyperbole in calling anything a crisis or an emergency.

Because migration is such a hot-button issue, we also should try to avoid imagery conjuring war or natural disaster, which could portray migrants as a negative, harmful influence. Avoid emotive words like onslaught, tidal wave, flood, inundation, surge, invasion, army, march, sneak and stealth.

Rather, let’s be as neutral as possible while backing up our characterizations with numbers and facts. So, for example, Biden is contending with the largest number of migrant encounters at the border since a four-month streak in 2019. It is the among the largest number of unaccompanied children encountered at the border on record. Overcrowded detention facilities that have sent U.S. authorities scrambling for space and prompted the administration to dispatch FEMA to the border.

We should explore widely all perspectives on this controversial issue. At the same time, we should be mindful of misinformation and think through which quotes we are using to ensure that we are not repeating factual misinformation in quotes and provide fact checking as part of the story.