AP Won't Use the Term 'Illegal Immigrant' Because Of Its 'Anti-Ethnic Undertones'

The Associated Press has made news repeatedly in recent months for Stylebook revisions: for example, for both relinquishing the term “homophobia” and welcoming the usage of “his husband” and “her wife.”

On Tuesday, they announced the AP stylebook will no longer welcome the term “illegal immigrant,” preferring instead a more politically-correct mumble about residents “without legal permission”:

    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.

AP senior vice president Kathleen Carroll told Poynter MediaWire (unconvingingly) this wasn’t a surrender to liberal lobbying pressure from people like illegal immigrant journalist Jose Antonio Vargas:

Pushback from advocates didn’t influence AP’s thinking, she said. (Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post and Huffington Post reporter who founded the advocacy organization Define American, has urged both AP and The New York Times to find a less loaded descriptor.)

Reached by phone, Vargas said, “This was inevitable. This is not about being politically correct.”

Reporters would laugh at a politician who would say he or she didn’t succumb to lobbying on an issue  as obvious as this. AP should know absolutely no one who’s paying attention to media issues would believe they weren’t responding to demands for political correctness.

This lobbying has been going on for a long while. Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza told Lou Dobbs in 2006 that the words had "anti-ethnic undertones." I was a little surprised that “undocumented” wasn’t used more when I studied this in a 2006 Special Report on TV immigration coverage:

In 309 stories, there were 381 uses of the word "illegal," and 73 uses of "undocumented." But some reporters struggled to please: NBC’s Kevin Tibbles actually referred to protests by "those who critics call illegals."

So let’s state the obvious to AP: many news consumers see words like “undocumented” as weasel words that reek of sympathy to people who have entered the country or overstayed their legal admission to the country and need to "come out of the shadows." Our report showed media sympathy to be overwhelming, as if illegal immigration was a civil right.

The word "alien" was already rare. Frankly, in the 2006 coverage, it was more upsetting that one side of the immigration debate was constantly described as “conservative” and two of the Big Three networks couldn’t find the word “liberal” anywhere. The labeling imbalance was 89 to 3.

Tim Graham's picture

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