February 11, 2010

Making sure we get the terms right.

Ran across an article in Foreign Policy about what it means to be an "al Qaeda affiliate." I talk about it a bit on my global journalism blog (What does “al Qaeda affiliate” mean?).

But here I want to talk about making sure our students and colleagues use the right words to describe an event or action.

I was really upset with the way the U.S. media covered the Sean Goldman kidnapping case and subsequent return of 9-year old Sean to his father and the United States.

To read about the case in the American newspapers this case was a "custody" battle. And maybe in one sense it was but it was not "Kramer v. Kramer." The custody issue was settled long ago by a New Jersey court. The child was to live with his biological father.

This was a kidnapping case.

The mother left the country with her son under false pretenses. Divorced her husband and denied him access to his son.

David Goldman fought for visitation rights while the biological mother was alive. He also filed kidnapping charges against the mother under the Hague Convention.

Upon the mother's death, David filed for and won custody of the child in New Jersey.

The whole issue was one of returning a kidnapped child to his legal parent. There was no legal issue of custody. (Other than the "possession is 90 percent of the law" mentality that the Brazilian family had.)

Using the right words to describe events clarifies those events. It takes a little more effort to make sure the writing is done right but without that effort we are shortchanging our readers/viewers/listeners.

And ourselves and our profession.

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