Study: “Illegal Immigrant” Most Commonly Used Term In News Stories

BLACKSBURG, Va.–When it comes to references to people not legally born in the U.S., “illegal immigrant” is the most commonly used term, a new study shows.

A University of Memphis journalism professor conducted an analysis of 122,000 pieces of journalism or more than 3,000 stories published between 2000 and 2010.

“Whatever term you choose is fraught with implications,” said Thomas Hrach, who worked for years as both a news reporter and news editor before leaving the newsroom for the classroom.

He presented the first results of his study on “News Organizations and Immigration Terms” this past weekend at the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium here at Virginia Tech.

He found some 59 percent of stories he analyzed used the word “illegal immigrant” compared to 29 percent, which used “illegal alien,” a term that The Associated Press Stylebook discourages.  Only about eight percent of articles used the term “undocumented immigrant” and even fewer the term “undocumented worker.”

Using searches of the NewsBank database to conduct the research, Hrach also analyzed his data by region of country in which they appeared.

The greater the percentage of Latino citizens in a region of the country, the more likely a news story is to use words like “undocumented worker” or “undocumented immigrant.”

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) holds its annual conference later this year in August.  Hrach hopes to have an update of his research completed by then.

“I’m curious when we include the 2011 stories if we will see a change,” Hrach said.

He is currently updating his data set to include stories published in 2011, the same year that the Society of Professional Journalists passed a resolution urging journalists to stop using the term “illegal alien” and to re-evaluate the use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

Dr. Thomas Hrach presented findings from his study of news organizations' use of immigration terms at the AEJMC Southeast Colloquium last weekend.

Faculty adviser for the SPJ student chapter at the University of Memphis,  Hrach invoked the comments of SPJ President-Elect Sonny Albarado on the resolution’s passage following the 2011 Excellence in Journalism gathering in New Orleans.

“I hope this makes a statement about sensitivity of language.” Albarado is quoted as saying following the SPJ gathering last fall.

The SPJ Diversity Committee, which introduced the resolution,  is eager to see what Dr. Hrach finds after completing his latest analysis.

George L. Daniels, associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama and a member of the SPJ National Board of Directors, is a past chairman of the SPJ Diversity Committee.

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