Posted on October 9, 2012

‘Illegal Immigrant’ Debate: Univision Takes on the New York Times

Roque Planas, Huffington Post, October 8, 2012


The nation’s top-rated Spanish-language broadcast network took The New York Times to task last week in a series of articles on its English-language website, after The Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan defended the paper’s decision to continue using the term “illegal immigrant,” in its pages and online. Sullivan explained her decision as a matter of accuracy. Univision pointed out that Latinos largely find the term offensive and intimated that The New York Times’ decision may have more to do with lack of diversity than journalistic ethics.

In a post to her blog on Oct. 2, Sullivan wrote that, after thinking about the debate for a couple weeks, she had sided against the term “undocumented.”

Just as “illegal tenant” in a real estate story (another phrase you could have seen in Times articles or headlines) is brief and descriptive, so is “illegal immigrant.” In neither case is there an implication that those described that way necessarily have committed a crime, although in some cases they may have. The Times rightly forbids the expressions “illegals” and “illegal aliens.”

Univision shot back in a series of articles critiquing Sullivan’s logic and portraying the paper as out-of-touch with Latinos.


In a separate post filed the same day titled “The Times Is Behind the Times,” Univision noted that media outlets that aim to reach Latino audiences keep away from the term “illegal immigrant.”

In many newsrooms where Latinos have a seat at the table, the term “illegal immigrant” has been dropped. NBC, which started NBC Latino this year, dropped the term. ABC, which is part of our new partnership with Univision, dropped the term. CNN, after making recent Latino hires, announced that they prefer to use “undocumented.” The Miami Herald and the San Antonio Express-News, which both have a large Hispanic readership, have dropped the term. Even Fox News, a cable channel viewed by the public to be the most conservative network in a 2009 Pew survey, took a step in the same direction when it dropped illegal in favor of “undocumented” on their Fox News Latino site.


Univision isn’t the only one pushing papers like The New York Times to change its position.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists launched a campaign to get newspapers to drop the term “illegal immigrant” back in 2006. “It is much easier to dehumanize and to silence somebody when you’re calling them an illegal,” then-Executive Director of NAHJ Ivan Roman told the American Journalism Review in 2010.

{snip} Almost half of likely Hispanic voters find the term “illegal immigrant” offensive, according to a Fox News Latino poll released this year.]


Sullivan does not set editorial policy for The New York Times, but as public editor her positions can influence style and language use decisions at the paper.