AP Drops Debated Term

Ellen Hoffman, Editor-in-Chief

The Associated Press made a significant change to their journalistic style guide by dropping the term “illegal immigrant” in early April.

“Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere,” said AP’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carrol in an article in The Huffington Post.

The choice to drop the term came after years of objection by immigration rights advocates and Latino media organizations.  The groups feel the term is offensive.

The updated style guide says, “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. Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.”

Maria Cabrera, Multicultural Student Outreach Coordinator, thinks AP’s decision helps move the country in a positive direction.

“If you’re saying that they are ‘illegal’ I think the term just has a negative connotation,” she said. “Or when they used to say ‘illegal alien’ it just dehumanizes the person.”

Cabrera felt the term “illegal” and “alien” treated individuals as criminals and labeled groups with stereotypes.

“It makes it more of a political agenda in a way of how you name a certain group that comes from another country because it makes it seem like they’re doing something to the population of that country for the worse and they’re treated as a criminal because they decide to seek a better life for themselves instead of committing crimes,” she said. “I think it’s a good change because it changes the way and the why the people come from another country.”

She has first hand experience with the controversial terms because she was called an “illegal immigrant” for much of her life. Terms like these made it difficult when Cabrera applied to college.

She said many people grouped her into the stereotypical category when she was young so it was hard, at first, to understand why she was categorized differently even though she was born in the U.S.

Thankfully, she said, the status of her documents changed in time for her to apply to college and move past the label that followed her throughout her adolescent years.

“I don’t know what I would have done if our documents didn’t come at the time that they were supposed to come,” she said.

She said she feels for anyone who has been called an “illegal immigrant.”

“I think that I wouldn’t want to be known as an ‘illegal immigrant’ because I haven’t done anything wrong. It just touches home for me because I was in that situation before and I wouldn’t want my sibling to be called an ‘illegal immigrant’.”

Cabrera thinks the decision to drop the controversial term was a long time coming. While the U.S. continues to change and develop,  language and attitudes change, too.

“I think it is a good thing that we are taking notice, that we should not be writing these things in those terms because it makes the human less valuable,” Cabrera said.

She commends the AP for making this choice, and she suspects it was driven by the increasing population of Hispanic and Latino immigrants in the U.S.

“I think the recent economic change and the recent high school graduates that have been undocumented is increasing and the population is also increasing. I think that it was a combination of all those things that are happening, and finally, I guess the Associated Press took the initiative to make those changes because I think they understood that [the term] was dehumanizing the person.”

Cabrera is not the only one taking notice of the AP’s decision.  Local newspapers are already using the newer terminology.

Kevin Donlin, news editor at The Citizens’ Voice, says he knows the AP has been trying to get away from terms like “illegal immigrant.” He noted that the AP updated in 2011, saying the language evolution has been an ongoing process.

“For us, I mean it is just follow the style that is set forth by the AP and it’s an effort to get away from labels. I know they have been trying to get away from label type stuff and not describe the person but the activity.”

Donlin said the change is already impacting headlines.

“This will be a challenge to avoid this term,” he said about coming up with creative headlines. “There have been some arguments that it’s political correctness and I can see that. It’s really to describe the activity rather than the person itself. I can see both sides of the argument.”

Donlin believes the elimination of the term is a step toward improved newspapers and other media outlets.

“I think it’s a move to try to get better reporting because you can’t sum it up in just this term anymore.”

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