On AP’s “illegal immigration” style change

I’m glad The Associated Press continues to examine the best way to describe being in this country in violation of U.S. law.

The 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.

Some might 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 the country’s population regards those terms as offensive. It wasn’t that long ago that keepers of journalism style fought dropping ‘Negro’ as a term for black or African-American people, yet news organizations adopted the newer style.

As journalists we have to take into account what people call themselves while also taking care to be precise and accurate. Sometimes those two things are in conflict and require an honest discussion to resolve that clash.

On Sept. 27, 2011, SPJ adopted a resolution at its annual convention in New Orleans urging “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.”

Less than a year ago, The AP Stylebook — used by many news organizations as a guide to uniformity of language — adopted “illegal immigrant” as a term of choice over “illegal alien.” AP was careful to note that “illegal immigrant” wasn’t the only acceptable description, but the term is what observers latched onto.

Based on AP Senior VP and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll’s statement about this week’s decision, the wire service has taken the “continuous discussion and re-evaluation” suggestion to heart.

The discussions on this topic have been wide-ranging and include many people from many walks of life. (Earlier, they led us to reject descriptions such as “undocumented,” despite ardent support from some quarters, because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence.)

Those discussions continued even after AP affirmed “illegal immigrant” as the best use, for two reasons.

A number of people felt that “illegal immigrant” was the best choice at the time. They also believed the always-evolving English language might soon yield a different choice and we should stay in the conversation.

Also, we had in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels. The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of schizophrenic, for example.

And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to “illegal immigrant” again.

We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance.

Carroll goes on to note that “We believe more evolution is likely down the road.”

Yes, the conversations should continue, but I think the AP has arrived at a commendable middle ground.

Here is the new AP style entry in its entirety:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.

As we all know, words can hurt as well as inspire or soothe.

 

 

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