SPJ Diversity pleased with AP decision on “illegal immigrant” term usage

The SPJ Diversity Committee is pleased with The Associated Press’ decision to change the use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

However, the Diversity Committee has been behind the issue of dropping the term “illegal” for the past few years, spearheaded by former committee member Leo Laurence. And it was in New Orleans at the Excellence in Journalism Conference 2011 when I witnessed former Diversity Fellow and Vice Chairwoman Rebecca Aguilar address the SPJ board about her mother, who came to the United States from Mexico, and the pain it caused when she saw the term “illegal alien” used in the newspaper.

Rebecca Aguilar addresses SPJ Board about using term "illegal alien". Photo by Sandra Gonzalez

Rebecca Aguilar addresses SPJ Board about using term “illegal alien”.
Photo by Sandra Gonzalez

After hearing Aguilar’s impassioned speech, the voting convention delegates passed this resolution on voice vote:

WHEREAS, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges all journalists to be “honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information” and;

WHEREAS, mainstream news reports are increasingly using the politically charged phrase “illegal immigrant” and the more offensive and bureaucratic “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants, particularly Latinos and;

WHEREAS, a fundamental principle embedded in our U.S. Constitution is that everyone (including non-citizens) is considered innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law and;

WHEREAS, this constitutional doctrine, often described as “innocent-until-proven-guilty,” applies not just to U.S. Citizens but to everyone in the United States and;

WHEREAS, only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an “illegal” act and;

WHEREAS, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is also concerned with the increasing use of pejorative and potentially inaccurate terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists convention of delegates: urges journalists and style guide editors to stop the use of illegal alien and encourage continuous discussion and re-evaluation of the use of illegal immigrant in news stories.

Prior to this, it had been rejected by the Resolutions Committee.

The AP is now changing how it will describe people as journalists report stories involving the current immigration issue. According to Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, here is what is behind the decision:

The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.

“Journalists and others can argue that the new style recommendation is less precise than ‘illegal alien’ or ‘illegal immigrant,’ but it’s important to note that a significant portion of country’s population regards those terms as offensive.  It wasn’t that long ago that keepers of journalism style, including The AP, fought dropping ‘Negro’ as a term for black or African-American people,” says SPJ President Sonny Albarado.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists also says these terms can be dehumanizing  and demeaning.

“AP is right to note that the English language evolves and that our everyday usage contributes to that evolution. I hope journalists and others continue this conversation about immigration and people who come here legally or illegally until we arrive at terminology most of us can agree on,” Albarado says.

We on the SPJ Diversity Committee agree and hope journalists will eliminate these types of terms from their copy as immigration is a huge issue we will be reporting on this year.

Sandra Gonzalez
SPJ Diversity Committee Chairman
KSNV Reporter
Las Vegas

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  • sam reeter

    This is such BS. These people are here illegally. They are criminals. Who cares if they are offended. Illegal is illegal. I am offended that they are so catered to. Do you care that I am offended? I was born here legally. I have the right to be here.

    All this political correctness BS is just that – BS. And this anecdotal stuff is just that, anecdotal. There are 300+ million other anecdotal stories in this country. Why not find out how most Americans feel about illegal immigration. But that is not what you are concerned about.

  • Candace

    Even as an American citizen I have always felt that using the phrases “illegal immigrants” and “illegal aliens” are very offensive. We should accept the fact that there are many undocumented immigrants here and calling that many people by such a name is very “dehumanizing and demeaning”. We shouldn’t forget that they are still humans.

    Just like the article said, “ It wasn’t that long ago that keepers of journalism style, including The AP, fought dropping ‘Negro’ as a term for black or African-American people,” We are constantly changing and improving and I believe that this is a step in the right direction.

    For those who are against changing the way that these people are addressed really need to take some time to look within themselves. Why would you want to call a person something that obviously causes pain. The woman in the article spoke of the hurt that it caused her as a child. I believe that this insensitivity may stem from prejudice thinking. I’m pretty sure if you tried to interact and get to know these so called “illegals” you would have a change of heart and feel ashamed of calling them such a hurtful word.

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