Jamie Kelly has a solid post on the Associated Press’ announcement earlier this month that “illegal immigrant” is no longer acceptable in its news reports on the wires and webs. (And if you haven’t read his blog, you should.) AP style is influential, even among news organizations and writers who are not members, such as my news organization.
I’ve heard this move panned as some sort of bow to political correctness. But I think the actual planned AP Stylebook entry, which Jamie links to, undermines that notion:
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.
So actually try to find out the individual circumstances of someone’s entry into the country, instead of slapping a lazy label on them. Be more precise and accurate in describing a person’s actual situation. That sounds a lot like good journalism.
It’s also a reminder that although this issue is generally fought over big numbers and broad labels, it’s also about individuals. What I saw in Postville after the 2008 packing plant raid, frightened people, adults and children, who, yes, came from Guatemala and entered the country illegally, has stuck with me. It was harder to simply dismiss them as “illegals” when you looked them in the eye and saw them as people. That’s not excusing illegal behavior. It’s seeing the problem as it really is. And I think the AP change encourages more of that closer examination.