NOTE: A response from the New York Times is appended below.
The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) has long stood for fairness and respect when it comes to covering our communities, and AAJA stands with the Associated Press and other news organizations in revamping how they describe people who are in our country illegally.
We commend AP for acting to revise its influential stylebook, a well-reasoned decision that we hope will spark further discussion about the term “illegal immigrant.” We agree with AP that “illegal” should not be used to describe people but be used to describe the actions people take. We, too, dislike unfair and unnecessary labels.
This change is relevant not just about people crossing the border from Mexico, but for others from Asia, Europe and other continents who are illegally residing in the United States. (In the spirit of full disclosure, two of AAJA’s officers are employed by AP.)
We applaud USA Today, in particular, for quickly looking into its own policies. While USA Today’s style may not be identical to that of AP, it acknowledged the pejorative nature of using “illegal” to describe human beings. In recent days, the Chicago Tribune has announced it will adhere to AP’s new style.
The New York Times this week also revised its policy. While the Times didn’t go far enough, we nevertheless appreciate the step of writers being asked “to consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions: who crossed the border illegally; who overstayed a visa; who is not authorized to work in this country.”
These recent changes indicate that newsrooms across the country are taking the immigration matter seriously, and we hope that similar discussions will occur at more news outlets.
MediaWatch, AAJA’s watchdog program for fair and accurate news coverage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, stands ready to assist news organizations that have questions or concerns about covering our communities. As a resource, we offer this guide: http://www.aaja.org/aajahandbook.
Bobby Caina Calvan
AAJA MediaWatch Chair
Response from the New York Times, received Thursday, April 25:
I read your thoughtful post on “illegal immigrant” on the AAJA Web site. I know you don’t agree with our position but I appreciate your balanced description of it. I’d like to respond, though, to just one narrow point in the argument that you and many others have made. You write: “We agree with AP that ‘illegal’ should not be used to describe people but be used to describe the actions people take.”
It’s hardly the most important element of the discussion, and I understand the overall sensitivity of the language, but it’s simply wrong to suggest that “illegal immigrant” is a unique case of using “illegal” to modify a noun referring to a person.
A very cursory search of nytimes.com turns up hundreds of uses of other such phrases – illegal tenants, illegal renters, illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal parkers, illegal drivers, and no doubt others I haven’t thought of.
I realize that none of those carry the same political freight as “illegal immigrant.” I just wanted to point out that this construction is a perfectly ordinary one, in which a reader understands that it is the specific action that is being characterized as “illegal.” An “illegal tenant” is not an illegal person who rents an apartment, but rather a person who is renting illegally. Similarly, “illegal immigrant” does not describe an “illegal person,” but rather a person who has immigrated illegally.
Philip B. Corbett
Associate Managing Editor for Standards
The New York Times