SPJ Takes Up Crusade Against Term ‘Illegal Immigrant’

Alana Goodman, Culture and Media Institute, December 14, 2010

The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ)’s Diversity Committee has announced that it will be launching a year-long campaign to educate journalists about the hurtfulness of phrases like “illegal immigrant,” which is the term currently preferred by the influential AP Stylebook.

The label “remains offensive to Latinos, and especially Mexicans, and to the fundamentals of American jurisprudence,” wrote Leo E. Laurence, a member of the SPJ Diversity Committee and the editor the San Diego News Service {snip}.

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Laurence argues that the terms “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker” should replace “illegal immigrant,” because the U.S. legal system presumes that one is innocent until proven guilty.

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Drunk drivers are also innocent until convicted in a court of law–and yet the Miami Herald headline “Miami police cracking down on drunk drivers” hasn’t warranted a similar critique from SPJ’s civil libertarian crusaders. Car theft, too, is considered a crime that must be adjudicated through the legal system. But when the AP reports that “Newport News police want to reduce car thefts,” does the SPJ consider this a violation of the constitutional rights of the car thief community.

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The SPJ diversity committee says “undocumented immigrant” is a more appropriate description. Yet living in the U.S. without any documentation of citizenship is illegal. Using the term “undocumented immigrant” is disingenuous, because it downplays the severity of the crime. It’s like calling a car thief an “unauthorized driver”–it’s misleading to the point of inaccuracy. And when a journalist makes the decision to mislead readers, in an attempt to portray a person or group in a more positive light, it can’t be called anything but pure advocacy.

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