The Associated Press Gets the Point

April 3rd, 2013 · 2 Comments · immigration, journalism, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Just yesterday (April 2), I saw this  message (in three different languages) on the T-shirt of a young woman in Albuquerque:

There’s no such thing as an illegal human.

What she wore was making an excellent point.

Today’s Santa Fe New Mexican reports that the Associated Press has issued a directive to its reporters indicating it has arrived at understanding that very point:

The Associated Press announced Tuesday it is dropping the term illegal immigrant from its style guide to describe people who have entered the U.S. illegally or are overstaying a visa.

A blog post by AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said, “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.”

The AP describes itself as “the definitive source for reliable news across the globe” and because the Albuquerque Journal is among its newspaper subscribers, it’s safe to assume AP stories will no longer carry the term “illegal immigrant.”

And because the Journal itself adheres to the AP Stylebook (as do most newspapers), AP’s decision means that the Albuquerque Journal likely will no longer carry the term in its local stories, either.

In her story, the New Mexican’s Adele Oliveira reported this local reaction to AP’s announcement:

“It’s about time!” said Marcela Diaz of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Santa Fe. “The word illegal describes a status — and is the term that most of the papers in New Mexico still use — and doesn’t accurately reflect the complexities of immigration law. It’s not neutral, and it paints the community with a sense of commonality that does not accurately reflect the breadth of our community.”

The first few readers who commented below the New Mexican story reacted negatively to it, mostly reflecting a belief that the language change somehow gives legal status to those who are in the United States without it.

It should go without saying that the AP’s action does not change the status of any immigrant. What it does is change the way AP reports that status, which in turn has the potential to change how readers interpret stories about immigrants and immigration law.

Language is powerful, and indeed colors thoughts and biases. Calling a person an “illegal” is simply incomplete to the point of inaccuracy.

The AP’s action is heartening in terms of journalistic professionalism. Now, instead of continuing to use a short phrase of convenience, the AP Stylebook is encouraging better reporting.

In the Stylebook change, the Associated Press now tells its reporters:

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

As the New Mexican reports:

When referring to individuals who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants temporary legal status to young people under age 31 who have resided in the U.S. since 2007, the new entry indicates that writers should “use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.”

Some news outlets use the word undocumented to describe people who have indeterminate legal status. While Diaz and (Flor de Maria) Oliva agree that undocumented is a better description than illegal immigrant, both said this term is also inadequate to describe the complexities of immigration and immigration law.

These changes in style might seem minor on the surface, but in reality, they are huge.

Having reporters gather more information about each individual and about each case could result in more complete immigration-related stories. It could also result in better, more complete reporting about proposals regarding changes in immigration law.

Having reporters ask pointed follow-up questions also could send a message to those who draft or enforce immigration law. During those interviews, reporters will be showing policymakers they are aware of the differences in immigration status, that every immigrant has a different status with regard to the law, and that one size does not fit all.

They will be imparting to both those they question and to those who read their stories that immigrants – regardless of legal status – are human beings.

Note: It’s unlikely Fox News will be following this new AP style. That organization reports that AP is “under scrutiny” for making the change, accusing the AP of “trying to influence the immigration debate.” Fox does note, however, that CNN, ABC News and NBC News have already stopped using the term “illegal immigrant” and that the New York Times is considering dropping it as well.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Cheryl Everett

    I’m toasting the AP at dinner tonight. Also toasting ABQJW for putting this great news on my dinner plate. When the term “illegals” comes up in conversation, I simply say “No human being is illegal,” and attribute the quote (as I saw it once attributed) to Mother Teresa. I’m not surprised the NYT is lagging behind, and wonder what the LA Times and Washington Post are doing?

  • Cheryl Everett

    I’ve noticed that ABQ television news stations are not following the AP style, either ~ with tabloid-style Channel 13 being the worst.

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