Times change and so, thankfully, does the use of outmoded, inaccurate or offensive terms. Associated Press, long the arbiter of style for journalists, has revised its Stylebook year after year, ultimately shedding archaic terms like “Oriental,” “mentally retarded” and “homophobia.” The latest language to go under the knife is “illegal immigrant” when referring to someone who is living or immigrating to a country illegally. It’s a change that’s long overdue, say immigrant advocates.
They’ve long maintained that these terms, used either as adjectives or as nouns, reduce the complicated gradations of immigration status to a black-and-white, either-or issue. For example, many immigrants described as “undocumented” actually do have papers that allow them to be living in the country legally. From now on, AP instructs writers to use these words to refer to actions, rather than descriptions:
“illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.”
The AP admits that the new language may be awkward for writers. But eventually, accuracy should win out over facility – just in time for the big immigration policy battle heating up in Congress, and the slew of news coverage it will inevitably bring.
Have you been bothered by the term “illegal” to describe immigrants? Does changing the way media refers to a class of people lead to change in public attitudes? Are there archaic or offensive labels still out there in common use that you’d like to see retired for good?
Phuong Ly, executive director, The Institute for Justice and Journalism; founder of Gateway California, a nonprofit that connects journalists and immigrants