Wednesday, December 19, 2012

“Worker” Commoditizes the Individual

Not long after I graduated from college someone gave me a refrigerator magnet that said, “For this I went to college?”  I attached it to an old metal filing cabinet near my desk at the radio station where I started my career. 

At that time, I wore a number of hats, though my title was producer.  I was also a news writer, editor, researcher, commercial producer/writer, TV producer, and a promotions coordinator.  There were a few of us at the large broadcast operation who did similar things.

If you wanted to flatter us you could have called us “broadcast professionals” or even “journalists.”  If you wanted to insult us you could have called us “broadcast workers.”

At that time, we felt we were more than just workers.   We were hired for our intellectual capabilities as well as our skills, or so we thought.  “Workers” to us were laborers in manufacturing or construction. 

To us, the difference was that a worker is a commodity, a professional is not. 

That was more than a couple of decades ago and nothing has changed in the media.  Reporters, editors and news writers still like to be referred to as journalists.  Most would cringe at the thought of being labeled “news workers.”

Just this week, I read an article where the caption under a photo referred to an unemployed individual as a “human resources worker.”  In the actual article, however, the same person was described as a “human resources professional.”  He was hardly unskilled.  He was a seasoned human resources executive.  The difference on the page, however, was in the divergent ways the caption writer and the business reporter – two different people – viewed the individual who was the subject of the story.  Commodity or professional?

To be sure, terms like “human resources worker” draw no distinction between a 20-year, accomplished human resources professional, and an entry-level human resources claims processor.

This is important since it seems journalistic style is trending toward labeling those in other, non-media professions as “workers” instead of the formerly more common descriptors: employees, professionals, executives, business owners, consultants, etc.

I tend to lean towards being more specific and avoiding the use of the word “worker” in most situations, even when referring to laborers or those who work in the trades where “worker” may in fact be in the name of their unions.  I believe the word devalues the individual and is not specific enough.

And perhaps there’s also that part of me who grew up during the Cold War, who was an avid reader and who remembers the language of Communist China and the Soviet Union.  The word “worker” still has a stigma to me.  It attaches no personal achievement or individual talent that a person might bring to a role.  Rather it pigeon-holes the individual by functionality.  To at least a small extent, it removes personhood and commoditizes the individual. 

“Worker” to me is a flat word.  Whenever I see it in a news article, I find myself thinking, “This journalist could do better.”

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