The Los Angeles Times announced late Wednesday that it would join the Associated Press in dropping the phrase "illegal immigrant" from its style guide. This makes America's other Times the latest paper to address the concerns of a movement led by activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas to encourage the country to rethink the issue of immigration. However, the L.A. Times actually goes a stage further than the verbiage that Vargas himself encourages. The new policy forbids the use of "undocumented immigrant" as well as "illegal immigrant." The paper explained its reasoning in a memo from its Standards and Practices Committee:
'Illegal immigrants' is overly broad and does not accurately apply in every situation. The alternative suggested by the 1995 guidelines, 'undocumented immigrants,' similarly falls short of our goal of precision. It is also untrue in many cases, as with immigrants who possess passports or other documentation but lack valid visas.
All that makes a lot of sense. Immigration is a complicated issue, and every case is different — Why not eschew labels altogether and just explain stuff? Sounds like a job for journalism!
It's an appropriate challenge for the the times we live in. As President Obama and Congress continue (struggle?) to pursue immigration reform, politicians and journalists alike are trying to figure out the appropriate way to talk about these divisive issues. In part due to Vargas, the debate over whether to us the phrase undocument immigrant or illegal immigrant, as most papers do, has become a hot button topic in journalism.
The Associated Press turn heads a month ago, when it announced that it "no longer sanctions the term 'illegal immigrant' or the use of 'illegal' to describe a person," the AP's Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained. She added that the AP had a policy of "labeling people, instead of behavior." Vargas and his friends lauded the decision. The New York Times stepped forward three weeks later, but they didn't go quite as far as the AP. Instead of striking the language from its style guide, The Times decided to discourage its use and asked its editors to "consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions."
Now, the Los Angeles Times has raised the bar. Representing a city full of immigrants, the paper is almost challenging its competitors in the national news business to go all in on the issue. That goes not only for the AP and New York Times but also The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, America's largest paper in terms of distribution. Both of those newsrooms still support the use of "illegal immigrant."
The full memo to the newsroom:
Immigration is one of the most contentious and compelling subjects of our time. In our coverage, we aim to report with authority and balance — to be fair, nuanced and precise. We know that language matters and that our word choices must likewise be fair, nuanced and precise.
The Times adopted its current style on immigration-related language in 1995, recommending the use of "illegal immigrants" or "undocumented immigrants" in lieu of "illegal aliens." Those phrases have become highly politicized since then, prompting the Standards and Practices Committee to consider an update. The committee has been consulting with reporters and editors from across the newsroom since last fall, as well as meeting with advocates seeking an end to the media’s use of "illegal immigrant." After hearing strong arguments for and against the current Times style, we concluded that it was time for a new approach.
"Illegal immigrants" is overly broad and does not accurately apply in every situation. The alternative suggested by the 1995 guidelines, "undocumented immigrants," similarly falls short of our goal of precision. It is also untrue in many cases, as with immigrants who possess passports or other documentation but lack valid visas.
The Associated Press also reevaluated its usage of "illegal immigrant." It now proscribes that phrase, among other changes, in its approach to immigration-related language.
Our revised guidelines, which expand upon the language in AP's new listing for "illegal immigration," advocate taking a careful, case-by-case approach to all stories. We include examples of how to implement the new style.