Headlines

This article is headlined “Search Goes On For Missing Belleville Prostitute.” The prostitute in question is 47-year-old Janet Tillman, a mentally handicapped Illinois woman who’s been missing for two years. There are, as of this writing, 45 comments to the article, and a lot of people are upset about the headline referring to Janet as a prostitute. She is or was, in fact, a prostitute, but some of the commenters feel the headline demeans her and makes her sound like trash not worth looking for or whatever.

Perhaps the person who wrote the headline didn’t mean anything of the kind. Prostitution seems to have been Janet’s sole occupation; I can’t find any mention of another job. Would anyone complain about “Search Goes On For Missing Belleville Teacher” or “Lawyer” or even “Sewage Worker”? Nonetheless, it is a bit of a foot-in-mouth thing to do. Prostitution is, rightly or wrongly, a highly stigmatized profession.

I recall being troubled by a headline I saw several years ago: something like “DNA Links Mexicans to Murder.” The Mexicans in question were three specific men, all of them Mexican citizens born and raised in that country, who were suspected of committing a murder in Maryland. I remember thinking: Did they have to say “Mexicans”? What about just saying “men” or “suspects” or something similarly neutral? Would they have still used a headline referring to nationality if those men had been Slovenian or Zimbabwean or Japanese?

I think it’s similar to the prostitution issue. I need not point out that racism against Hispanics is quite prevalent in this country (my boyfriend is of Mexican descent so I see it firsthand). Most Americans, however, don’t tend to form negative opinions about people from countries like Slovenia. (Indeed, most Americans don’t know where Slovenia is. It’s in the Balkans, by the way.) Just the same way “prostitute” is a bad thing to call someone but “school teacher” is not.

Feel free to reflect and discuss.