Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 5th, 2013.
This week the AP Stylebook, the standardized style guide for newspapers and other publications across the United States, announced that no longer, under their rules, will it be acceptable to use the term “illegal immigrant.” AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained that the term “illegal” is incorrect when labeling people and “should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”
The change, proponents argue, is necessary because labeling individuals as “illegals” or “illegal” is an unfair designation that no other criminal or civil offender in this country receives. Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter and immigrant activist, has called the term “illegal immigrant” dehumanizing. In a Fox News Latino survey conducted last year, nearly half of Latino voters responded that they find the term “illegal immigrant” offensive.
About two months ago a similar political AP Style debate played out with regard to same-sex marriages. An internal memo was leaked that said the AP would use “couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages” as opposed to the terms “husband” and “wife.” This separate-but-equal discourse for legal same-sex marriages drew the ire of the gay community, causing the AP to change its position within the week.
These questions of language have real ramifications; the way that ideas are presented in the press impacts how people understand and relate to the issues, and the effort to avoid potentially loaded terms is never-ending.
For example, in the case of immigrants who enter the country illegally, the AP also now advises journalists to avoid the term “undocumented.” AP argues that often these individuals do hold some sort of documentation, therefore it’s inaccurate to assert otherwise. And in the case of the gay community, in November AP editors advised the press to avoid the term “homophobia” because, in their view, homophobia implies that anti-gay sentiment is based in irrational fear. AP now encourages journalists to use the term “anti-gay bigotry” instead.
(At The Baltimore Sun, the terms “illegal immigrants” and “homophobia” are still acceptable.)
The AP is not alone in revising its language related to immigration; New York Times officials have also said they also want to revise their style book to promote a more nuanced immigration discourse. But nuance may be the enemy of brevity. The AP’s new guidelines say, “Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?”
Certainly it’s important to find ways to describe such divisive political issues that is both accurate and neutral, but it can also lead to language that is clunky or, worse yet, not easily understood. Moreover, the effort to avoid potentially freighted language is almost inevitably viewed by those involved in the debate as taking sides. The AP’s effort to avoid controversy in its stylebook has often only courted it instead. In a highly polarized society, it may simply be impossible to find terms that please everyone.