By Georgiana Vines, diversity committee vice chair
The Dec. 23 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review has an article that no clear consensus has yet emerged in the news media on how to describe immigrants to the U.S. who are not here legally. The story by Rui Kaneya, CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana, is a reminder that news reporters and editors need to think about terms they are using.
Here is some of what he reported:
“As style manual changes go, it was big news. ‘Illegal immigrant,’ a phrase long used for people living in the country without authorization, was no longer ‘sanctioned’ in Associated Press copy, the wire service declared in April 2013. Its influential Stylebook was updated to read, in part: 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. The change was part of a broader effort to avoid ‘labeling people,’ said Kathleen Carroll, AP’s executive editor, but the move seemed clearly a concession to advocates for immigrants who argued it was offensive to describe a person or group of people as ‘illegal.’ Within weeks, major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today followed AP’s lead and abandoned the phrase, and it seemed likely more would follow. The Stylebook ‘is the last word on journalistic practice, so it’s particularly important for the AP to set this standard,’ Rinku Sen, publisher of the website Colorlines, which had coordinated a campaign to ‘Drop the I-Word,’ said at the time. ‘This should put the debate to rest.’ ”
Kaneya’s research shows that “illegal immigrant” hasn’t been banned and even has cropped up in AP copy despite the directive. Again from Kaneya’s story: “ ‘Alas, we are not perfect,’ said Paul Colford, an AP spokesman. Asked about a couple of these stories, he described them as ‘lapses from AP style.’”
He found Gannett allows local autonomy on matters of sensitivity with one paper using “undocumented” or “unauthorized” and finally “illegal immigrants.”
Kaneya summarizes that it’s not surprising that “illegal immigrant” lingers even after the shift in AP style. “Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, argued in its favor in 2012, writing that it was “clear and accurate,” while the alternatives were not,” he wrote.
All of this is a reminder that we are supposed to choose our words carefully whether it’s describing someone from another country and how they got to the U.S. or we’re writing about a person who has developmental disorders. Links to a number of these discussions can be found in the Diversity Style Guides Roundup at http://www.spj.org/divws2.asp.
Read the CJR article, ‘Illegal,’ ‘undocumented,’ or something else? No clear consensus yet” at http://bit.ly/1Hh22R7
Georgiana Vines is vice chair of the SPJ Diversity Committee and a retired associate editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.