What’s in a Name?

The Associated Press announced Tuesday it has changed its stylebook entry on the term “illegal immigrant”. The new entry reads as follows:

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 alienan illegalillegals 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.

The AP’s revision is timely, with Senators finishing a bi-partisan plan for immigration reform as we speak. Journalists will be challenged to use new language when writing about the issue, and that change in language will set the tone for the conversation. 

Tom Warhover, the executive editor of the Missourian, points out that “every word choice is a reflection of the values of the writer or organization.” In my view, the AP cannot deny the political implications this change holds. The new phrasing aligns with immigration reform advocates’ language. Such advocates often say, “No human being is illegal.” The Associated Press now agrees.

On the other hand, the AP is a wire service. Its job is to produce clear, accurate, plain-facts journalism. Warhover says he agrees with “the aspiration to avoid simple labels that contribute to stereotypes and the intent to make such descriptions attributable.” If the AP can discourage over-simplification and promote precision, then the change meets the goals of the Associated Press.

I believe that is the goal of this change, in fact, to rid journalistic vocabulary of laziness. In an age of 24/7 demand, it’s easy for journalists to use easy, catch-all language that’s efficient and recognizable. But the media’s influence on the public cannot be ignored, and with power comes responsibility. If a journalist’s job is to educate the public so that they can make well-informed decisions, then using accurate, appropriate language is key.

As the Senate gets closer to completing a plan for immigration reform, journalists will need to think about the words they choose. I challenge all those writing about this issue to consider why the change was made and to review whether or not they’re producing comprehensive, factual journalism. Turns out, there’s a lot in a name: remember that.

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