The Double Standard of Describing Developing Countries

Small town life or village life? Tohomina Akter washes herself at the neighborhood well in Char Baria, Barisal, Bangladesh, on Thursday, April 19, 2012. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World

This might be old to some of you but it's new to me: last April A View From the Cave, Carol Jean Gallo and David Week wrote up a list of behaviors and how the behaviors are described based on whether they happen in Washington, D.C., or Africa. A sampling:

What people might normally call it: Money received from political sponsors When it happens in Washington: Campaign contributions When it happens in Africa: Bribes

What people might normally call it: Political families When it happens in Washington: Tradition of public service When it happens in Africa: Nepotism

I have to admit I was blind to some of my own language biases, especially a few of the examples found in the comments section of the original post.

Reading all these brought back memories of my journalism days, when heated newsroom discussions ensued over how we described certain populations: "undocumented immigrant" vs "illegal immigrant" or "anti-abortion" vs "pro-life." Also, you might remember the post-Hurricane Katrina furor over photo captions that described an African-American man as "looting" food and a Caucasian couple as "finding" food.

The point is obvious, but can be easy to forget: words have meaning. Words frame how people perceive a story. Words should be chosen with care.

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