Do you remember those school exercises in which you look at the same news events through the coverage of two or more different newspapers, to show how devices such as placement, framing and choice of words make a big difference in the overall effect of the story? It’s an old-school method but a good one, and for any teachers out there looking for material, a story in today’s New York Times that has gotten picked up in a number of other papers offers a fine case study. Let’s read it together, shall we? The headline is: U.S. Seeks Closing of Visa Loophole for Britons. We begin with the statement of the problem:
LONDON, May 1 â€” Omar Khyam, the ringleader of the thwarted London bomb plot who was sentenced to life imprisonment on Monday, showed the potential for disaffected young men to be lured as terrorists, a threat that British officials said they would have to contend with for a generation.
But the 25-year-old Mr. Khyam, a Briton of Pakistani descent, also personifies a larger and more immediate concern: as a British citizen, he could have entered the United States without a visa, like many of an estimated 800,000 other Britons of Pakistani origin.
The next graf is where the action is. In two tight sentences, it provides the scoop (Chertoff’s recent talks) and describes the problem as a “loophole,” a framing that, as you can see, percolated up to the headline, and thence to other papers, Google News links, and so on.
American officials, citing the number of terror plots in Britain involving Britons with ties to Pakistan, expressed concern over the visa loophole. In recent months, the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, has opened talks with the government here on how to curb the access of British citizens of Pakistani origin to the United States.
We proceed now to some analysis. The article plainly suggests that the reason Britain is resisting Chertoff’s proposals is that accepting them would be damaging to the governing Labour Party. Don’t take my word for it:
At the moment, the British are resistant, fearing that restrictions on the group of Britons would incur a backlash from a population that has always sided with the Labor Party. The Americans say they are hesitant to push too hard and embarrass their staunch ally in the Iraq war, Prime Minister Tony Blair, as he prepares to step down from office.
Let’s pause here and take a look at a British item on the same story. So far only the Guardian has picked it up (it will be interesting to see how the other broadsheets and tabloids cover if and when they do), so we’ll go with that. The headline is: “US ‘wants British Pakistanis to have entry visas.’” The first four grafs are as follows:
The American government wants to impose travel restrictions on British citizens of Pakistani origin because of concerns about terrorism, according to a report today.
In talks with the British government, the US homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, called for British Pakistanis to apply for a visa before travelling to the US, according to the New York Times.
The newspaper claimed that US officials were concerned about the number of terrorist plots in Britain involving citizens with ties to Pakistan.
It is understood that the British government is resisting any attempts to single out particular ethnic groups for travel restrictions. The Foreign Office has yet to comment on the report.
That’s the core of the comparison. The New York Times story then moves of to a recap of the Khyam trial, which has little to do with the United States per se — Khyam was sentenced for a UK plot and much of the evidence comes from his actions in travel back and forth between the UK and Pakistan. The Guardian story sticks to the headline topic and ends quickly.
Of course there’s a whole political and legal analysis to be done here about the very idea of corralling off an ethnically identified subset of citizens of a given country for the imposition of special travel restrictions. I would venture that the idea is absurd, sinister and unworkable, a bad-policy trifecta; but hey, what do I know. I do know, however, that describing the ability of UK citizens of a particular ethnic origin to enter the US on the same terms as other UK citizens a “loophole” is, wittingly or not, an appeal to prejudice and an insult to intelligence.
[UPDATE: The UK Foreign Office, and, somewhat less forcefully, the US government, repudiate the New York Times story.]