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When you hear the term "mud huts"

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina

We've spent a fair amount of real estate in our past newsletters discussing coded words and phrases — shortcuts that writers use to evoke images or themes, often unfairly. An NPR audience member recently brought another phrase to our attention: "mud huts."

When a journalist describes a building as a "mud hut" or a "mud house," many Americans will infer extreme poverty and substandard living conditions in a faraway country. And yet, equating the construction material with an economic standard isn't fully accurate. In some places, it's considered trendy and environmentally sound to build a house made of mud or clay. Some ancient cities that are still inhabited were built from mud. And in the American Southwest, historic adobe homes are rarely described as mud homes.

Yet, it's hard to avoid describing homes built from mud and clay when the people journalists are interviewing also use the terms. To address this listener's comments, we reached out to an NPR journalist who has thought a lot about when and how to describe the ways that houses are constructed from local materials.

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Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

A demeaning term?

Michael Stoler wrote on Aug. 21: Hello, I really wish NPR reporters would stop using the term "mud huts." I'm not sure what it means. I don't see how one can make a hut out of mud. Do they mean a sort of adobe, used in many places throughout the world, or brick? The reporters seem to use the term to describe the dwellings of people in developing countries, and it suggests the most primitive sort of shelter, in a condescending, even demeaning way. Would they describe the citizens of trendy Santa Fe as living in "mud huts"?

[Continued in follow-up emails:] People hear "mud" and they don't think of mud baked into clean, dry bricks, but of wet, dirty stuff that they wipe off their feet in "mud rooms." ... I might add that using "mud hut" as a symbol or indicator of poverty, as in the story on [former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva], is really demeaning to poor people.

We agree that, in the United States, the term "mud hut" is typically used to conjure an image of poverty or economic disadvantage.

Our team searched for recent examples of the terms "mud hut" or "mud house" appearing in NPR stories. Below are a few:

  • In a June Morning Edition story, India-based NPR international correspondent Lauren Frayer described a village as "a cluster of mud houses and a mosque." In a digital version of the story from August, Frayer called them "mud-brick."
  • In an August Weekend Edition Sunday story, journalist John Otis said that before a speech, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva "drew a small crowd as he visited a replica of the mud hut where he was raised."
  • In August, NPR ran a story from the Associated Press about floods and landslides hitting northern India. In it, the AP reported that rains inundated villages and "swept away mud houses."
  • Cristi Hegranes, CEO and publisher of the nonprofit organization Global Press, said that, by using a term like "mud hut," reporters are "describing either an impoverished area or an area that lacks infrastructure, without actually saying that."

    Hegranes helped create the Global Press Style Guide, a language road map that promotes dignity and precision in the practice of international journalism. She said: "One of the things we really look for in developing rules for the Global Press Style Guide is, is there equivalency? Do we refer to homes built by very wealthy people in the United States, in Europe, by a type of material used in the construction of their home? We do not. There's no equivalency there, so the reference is fundamentally flawed."

    Hegranes said that if the makeup of a home or structure is relevant to a story, it's a journalist's obligation to provide readers with specific, evidence-based descriptions, "so that we don't fall into these dangerous categories of sanitized synonyms for poverty."

    We asked international correspondent Frayer for her thoughts on the phrases "mud hut" and "mud house," the latter of which she used in her Morning Edition story.

    In an email, Frayer said she learned a lot from global health and development correspondent Nurith Aizenman's 2017 commentary piece that examined whether calling someone's home a "hut" is insulting. She said she's referred to it often over the years.

    "Because the word 'hut' can often sound pejorative, I use it sparingly — only when my interviewees use it themselves," Frayer said. "Even then, I'll ask them to be more specific and descriptive if possible."

    Frayer said her sources in the Morning Edition story used the term "mud houses" to describe what they saw firsthand in their ancestral village. She said a source also showed her video, some of which is embedded in the digital version of her story.

    "I felt that was appropriate, both because it was the terminology they used themselves, as well as because it was backed up by the video I've embedded — it is indeed an accurate description of some of the dwellings in the village," she said.

    Frayer noted that she would have gone into greater detail about the structures if the story was specifically about architecture or a particular house. But the houses were a passing detail that her interviewees mentioned.

    She said the aim is "always to be descriptive and accurate — and to include visuals whenever possible."

    "In that video, if you fast forward to around 4:30, you can see a low wall that's being constructed of bricks made from the village's sandy soil," she said. "Those are what I would call 'mud bricks,' and I would call houses made from them 'mud-brick houses.'

    "The bricks are made from a mix of sand, soil and water (and sometimes straw) and are air-dried, rather than kiln-fired," Frayer explained. "It's a traditional building method that you see around the world, in developed and developing countries. It's actually seeing a resurgence in eco-friendly 'green' construction."

    Based on her reporting experience, Frayer said "mud hut" or "mud house" could be accurate descriptions of many homes she's seen in India, North Africa and the American Southwest.

    "However, given how loaded these terms are, I'd rather be more precise and descriptive," Frayer said. "Is the mud hut a squat structure made of thatch, coated in mud? Is it made from the air-dried mud bricks I've described above? Does it have a corrugated metal roof? Is it a multi-story structure made of earthen blocks baked in a kiln? All of these details paint a picture on radio, and prevent the audience from falling back on stereotypes that might be unfair or inaccurate."

    Using words like "mud hut" or even "mud house" can feel like a crutch or a code word. When journalists intend to convey poverty or substandard housing conditions, they will be more accurate if they strive for specificity. — Amaris Castillo


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    The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

    Kelly McBride
    NPR Public Editor
    Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

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