People are not illegal, Only their actions, says new AP Style Book Entry

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“Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa?” According to the latest entry in the Associated Press stylebook, your actions are what’s illegal, not you.

The Associated Press will no longer use the term “illegal immigrant”.  Other banned words include “illegal alien,” “an illegal,” “illegals” and “undocumented.”

Instead, the AP wants journalists to use the terms “living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.”  Journalists can still use “illegal” if it is to “refer to an action, not a person,” or if it is “in direct quotes essential to the story.”

Journalists also should use specifics to describe individual situations like “how someone entered the country illegally and from where.”


Why did AP Change Policy?

Only six months ago, the AP defended the term “illegal immigrant.” That was around the time that former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas in high-profile reports publicly confessed that he had fake documents and identified himself as an “undocumented immigrant.” Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, founded a group called DefineAmerican that advocates discussing immigration.  He called on both the AP and the New York Times to stop using the tern “Illegal immigrant,” because he said it “marginalizes the people it seeks to describe.”

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll told Poynter that the recent decision was made despite the protestations of Vargas and others — including two U.S. journalism associations, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).

The AP’s change of policy was born, she says, from discussions about reporting on mental illness. AP editors reasoned that just as it is accurate to say people have the condition of “schizophrenia,” similarly it would be correct to say that people do illegal things, but people themselves aren’t illegal.

There is a tradition for this concept.

Perkins School for the Blind Media & PR Director Marilyn Rea Beyer explained to iMediaEthics by email that describing people as a condition or a disease is not acceptable.

Journalists should refer to “people who are visually impaired” or “people with impaired vision or with visual impairments.”  She referred to this approach as “people-first language.”

AP’s new “mental illness” standards recommend journalists to first question if it’s relevant to identify any mental illness. If yes, journalists are advised to include appropriately sourced information about the illness and treatment.  Further, the AP cautions journalists not to describe people diagnosed with mental illness negatively.


iMediaEthics selects some notable guidance regarding reporting about people with mental illness.

  • “Do not use derogatory terms, such as insane, crazy/crazed, nuts or deranged, unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to the story.”
  • “Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect”
  • “Avoid unsubstantiated statements by witnesses or first responders attributing violence to mental illness.”
  • “Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with, suffers from or victim of. Rather, he has obsessive-compulsive disorder. “


Some Advocates Still not Satisfied

The NAHJ, which has been advocating for journalists to stop using the term “illegal immigrants” and “illegal alien” since 2006, issued a statement saying it “applauds” the AP’s decision.  The association explained, “Those demeaning titles are not only inaccurate and disrespectful, but a propaganda tool used to dehumanize a group of people and instill fear in the general population in order to establish policy.”

The Society of Professional Journalists first joined in the call for journalists to stop using “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” in 2011. Its Diversity Committee responded to the AP’s announcement saying it was “pleased” but goes further, stating it wants the media to stop using the word “illegal” altogether.  The SPJ’s president, Sonny Albarado, compared the battle of changing terminology for immigrants to that of using the word “Negro,” saying:

“Journalists and others can argue that the new style recommendation is less precise than ‘illegal alien’ or ‘illegal immigrant,’ but it’s important to note that a significant portion of country’s population regards those terms as offensive.  It wasn’t that long ago that keepers of journalism style, including The AP, fought dropping ‘Negro’ as a term for black or African-American people”

Likewise, Otto Santa Ana, a linguist and professor in UCLA’s Department of Chicana/o Studies, told iMediaEthics that the AP’s new standards do not go far enough.

He dismisses AP’s announcement as not “a principled position in terms of linguistics or journalistic criteria of objectivity and neutrality.”

“They’re just accommodating to outcry,” Santa Ana said.

“The AP has finally made a good start by acknowledging that ‘illegal’ is a harsh expression whose unfair use demeans immigrants, the most vulnerable of people, in the public mind,” Santa Ana wrote in an email to iMediaEthics.

Santa Ana maintains the word “illegal” is a “partisan term from the right” whereas the alternative “undocumented” has been seen as “euphemistic and also a partisan term on the left.”  Instead, Santa Ana wants the AP to  use “politically neutral terms” for its reporting.  He recommends journalists use the term “unauthorized” as a middle-ground.

New York Times Public Editor Retreats from Earlier Guidelines

In an April 2 blogpost responding to the AP’s announcement, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan reported that the Times is planning to update its standards on the term “illegal immigrant’ but that she suspects the changes won’t be “nearly as sweeping as The AP’s.”


Sullivan previously argued in favor of the term “illegal immigrant.”  She now reports she’s changed her mind. Sullivan wrote:

“My position on this has changed over the past several months. So many people find it offensive to refer to a person with an adjective like “illegal” that I now favor the use of “undocumented” or “unauthorized” as alternatives.”

Check out all of iMediaEthics’ stories on immigration.

UPDATE: 4/4/2013 9:25 AM EST: Added bio info about Jose Antonio Vargas

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People are not Illegal, Only their actions, says new AP Style Book Entry

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2 Responses

  1. Paul Carter says:

    The AP today took another step further away from a news organization and towards a propaganda organ. News organizations use words to inform their readers/listeners while propaganda organs use words to deceive their readers/listeners.I will be attending my 55th high school reunion in June, and my memory of 12th grade English is just a bit fuzzy, but as I recall adjectives like “illegal” are used to describe nouns like “immigrant” or “alien.” In U.S. law there are many types of immigrants and the adjective “illegal” describes the sub-category of immigrants who have entered or remain the country illegally. The vast majority of English speaking Americans inherently understand this connection between nouns and adjectives. US citizens have an unfavorable opinion of law breakers which explains their unfavorable opinion of illegal immigrants. AP wants to deceive their readers in their stories about illegal immigrants by misusing words.

  2. Sydney says:

    The below response is from iMediaEthics’ editor-in-chief, Rhonda R. Shearer:Thank you for sharing your opinion on this emotional topic.AP’s point here reminds me of what is taught in school nowadays. Children are told that it is not right to call a person stupid. It is what the person has done, not the person himself /herself that may be stupid. Separating the act (a particular thing) from the person (global character) seems a reasonable and just change to me, however “politically correct” its origins.Rhonda

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