AP dumps ‘illegal immigrant’ but not neutrality

All big political wars are fought more often with words than with weapons.

Your “terrorist,” so the saying goes, is my “freedom fighter.”

Your “illegal alien” may be my “undocumented worker.”

Immigration activists demonstrated in Miami in January. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

But what if you do not see yourself as a combatant in a culture war? What if your job is to report on that war in a responsible way?  What if you see language as a gateway rather than a battering ram?  All those questions, and many more, come to the surface with the AP’s decision to dump “illegal immigrant” as a supposedly neutral news label.

But let’s begin with the language wars. As political strategy it works this way:  Before I can win the hearts and minds of the public at large, I must win the war of words.  To do this, I must frame the issues using language that reflects my view of the world.  If I get there first, I have a great advantage.  If I am playing catch-up, I must work harder. I may even have to undo common language usage.

Aldous Huxley argued that our public lives would work better if our arguments appealed to cool reason, rather than using language to inflame the emotions.  George Orwell condemned our tendency to use political language to obscure our true meanings and intents.

Opponents of certain medical practices won the battle when a procedure clinically known as “intact dilation and extraction” became criminalized as “partial-birth abortion.”  Raise your hand if you are in favor of  killing partially born babies?

There is an old word for the use of language and other symbols in support of a political or world view.  We call it propaganda, a term that was once neutral (your cause could be good or bad), but now has a negative connotation, thanks to Herr Goebbels and the machinations of the Third Reich.

My “propagandist” is now your “advocate.”

This brings us to the arguments over the phrase illegal immigrant.

I expressed an opinion in  2010 in “The Glamour of Grammar”: “The phrase illegal alien turns people into criminal Martians, yet undocumented workers seeks to veil their illegal status. Which leads me to illegal immigrants, a compromise that seems clear, efficient, and, from my limited perspective, nonpartisan.  Other will and should disagree.”

And, of course, they have. ABC and Univision dumped my preferred term; the San Antonio Express-News hasn’t allowed it since 2008. Tuesday the AP Stylebook turned the trick. For the moment, the New York Times is sticking with “illegal immigrants,” but history is on the march, and its ombudsman is on the case.

It is not unusual for individuals to see bias where none is intended – or even where the evidence is scarce.  This bias toward bias – seeing the other as the enemy and their language as lies — becomes magnified in times of war, or when political powers are polarized and gridlocked, as they are now.

In such an environment, “neutrality” or “non-partisanship” becomes seen by some as either obsolete or vicious. This raises the question of whether a reporter can be – to use a word that has fallen out of fashion — “disinterested,” that is, not a mouthpiece for a special interest?

My neutrality may become your obstacle to social change.

My stated preference for “illegal immigrant” derived from a philosophical attachment to reportorial neutrality as expressed in 1939 by S.I. Hayakawa in his book then titled “Language in Action”:

“For the purposes of the interchange of information, the basic symbolic act is the report of what we have seen, heard, or felt.” Reports have rules: first, they are capable of verification; secondly, they exclude, so far as possible, judgments, inferences, and the use of ‘loaded’ words.”

He argues that “the process of reporting is the process of keeping one’s personal feelings out.  In order to do this, one must be constantly on guard against ‘loaded’ words that reveal or arouse feelings.”  He prefers, for example, “homeless unemployed” over “tramp”: “Chinese” over “Chinaman,”; and “holders of uncommon views” over “crackpots.”

I think that, if her were alive today, Hayakawa would endorse “illegal immigrant” as the fallback position for news reports.  But, to borrow a catchphrase of multicultural politics:  “Your opinion, Professors Hayakawa and Clark, is no match for my experience.”

My preference for “illegal immigrant” involved an unloading of the alternatives, either the dysphemistic “illegal alien” or the euphemistic “undocumented worker.”  It did not occur to me that some would find the word “illegal” to be loaded, but I now understand why they do.

(To those who believe that America stole Texas from Mexico, even the word immigrant may seem loaded. My immigrant may be your liberator.)

The politics of all this became much clearer in the last presidential election.  The loss of the Hispanic vote by the Republicans occurred not just because the political right wing proposed policies (“self-deportation”) that seemed hostile to a culture, but because they used language that was demeaning to that culture.

Here, for example, is one of the tamer objections that appeared on the ABC Univision website:

“It is quite true that ‘illegal alien’ is not accurate.  Neither is ‘Undocumented immigrant’ or ‘Migrant worker.’ The proper description, political correctness aside, is ‘Criminal Alien.’

The AP argues, essentially, that the dignity of human beings requires us to avoid demeaning labels such as “illegal.” To describe a person as “illegal” is, to use Hayakawa’s term, to “load up” the language, a violation of responsible discourse. The AP also disapproves of such imprecise terminology as “undocumented.”

The proposed solution works for me: describe the action in the particular. “State police arrested ten men who they claimed crossed the border illegally.”  This requires more information, not less; more language, not less; and more nuanced reporting, which always helps.

One of the most cogent arguments for “more reporting” as a way of overcoming loaded descriptions came out of the Hutchins Commission report of 1947.  Among the requirements of a free and responsible press was “the projection of a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society.”  Using examples from that time, the authors condemned portrayals of the Chinese as “sinister drug addicts” or of African-Americans as “servants.”

Instead, “responsible performance here simply means that the images repeated and emphasized be such as are in total representative of the social group as it is.  The truth about any social group, though it should not exclude its weaknesses and vices, includes also recognition of its values, its aspirations, its common humanity.”

To find and depict our common humanity requires more reporting, not less; more language, not less; more thinking, not less.  That settles it, AP Stylebook.  I’m on board.

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  • hung duy





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  • http://twitter.com/safeandsilent Kathryn Woodcock

    I find it encouraging, but perplexing, as a non-journalist to read the AP guide advocating objective, verifiable description and avoidance of emotionally loaded terms and the remarkable extent to which journalists are wrestling with the description of individuals whose location and aspirational source of income is contraindicated by the prevailing legal framework.

    AP and other “reputable” news organizations routinely “deaf” and “blind” as metaphors for ignorance, negligence, incompetence, and obstinacy. The intent is to insult the subject of the account, whether politicians, bureaucracies, or individuals, by likening them to people with these disabilities.

    We appreciate that “blind” and “deaf” (e.g., “fell on deaf ears”, “blind to what was going on”) are established usages, figures of speech, but there are many figures of speech that we no longer use because the underlying metaphor was, for example, racially motivated. It seems the last permissible frontier to recklessly slur people with disabilities in the process of disparaging others. As this post reports, we’re even squabbling over whether “illegal” is a slur when describing someone whose legal status actually is not in accordance with the law.

    We heartily support use of “deaf” and “blind” to describe people who actually are deaf and blind; we don’t like “-impaired” language. Ironically, this is one area where journalists and headline writers won’t give us these words, presumably lest they offend someone. This reinforces the proposition that these words and indeed these conditions are seen as insults. People who are deaf, blind, or with other disabilities are as sensitive, intelligent, motivated, and ethical (or not) as any other category of people and it hurts our status every time our conditions are represented otherwise.

  • Reykjavik

    Until the law is changed, breaking the law is an illegal act, no matter who does it. Kind of tautological, isn’t it?

  • jskdn

    What’s inaccurate, unfair, or partisan about the use of illegal to describe those people from other countries “that are here in violation of the law. It’s simply a legal reality.”

  • jskdn

    “Rationalizations are more important than sex” said the Jeff Golblum character in The Big Chill. That seems to be the case here as those in the news media try to justify advocacy language.

    This was nothing more that caving to a pressure group that sought the abandonment of the use of accurate language because it didn’t support their agenda that immigration laws don’t matter. The notion that the words journalist use to best describe what’s real should constrained by some people’s claim to be offended by that which doesn’t support their agenda runs counter to what journalists are supposed to do. Let’s be clear, the news media already was overwhelmingly biased in favor of that agenda and had largely abandoned anything representing journalistic integrity in their reporting on illegal immigration. And that same news media couldn’t care less about any offense that people whose agenda they oppose might feel regarding the language they use. I can only hope this helps more people in the country to recognize just how pervasive the corruption of journalistic standards is throughout the news industry.

    Good journalism requires a dedication to the truthful and accurate reporting. Adherence to that is incompatible with advocating for someone or something else. Advocacy journalism is an oxymoron. Journalists accurately report the facts and those facts lead where they will without regard to whose interest they will help or hurt.

    AP appears to have adopted some version of the faulty logic of pro-illegal immigration advocates that “no human being is illegal.” No one is calling illegal immigrants illegal humans. The illegal applies only to their status as immigrants in this country not their person-hood. Contrary to AP’s argument that reporters should only “use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person”, it is perfectly appropriate to use that when the adjective represents a persistent characteristic of the noun, as opposed to an action that is discrete in time. That true with the illegal immigrants as well as for legal immigrants, which somehow didn’t get AP’s disapproval.

    Just as we can’t have illegal immigration (a term ruled permissible by the AP’s Orwellian endeavor) without having illegal immigrants (ruled unacceptable by AP), we can’t have journalism without having journalists. We have much of the former largely due to having so little of the later.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    Paul, please remember that I embraced “illegal immigrant” as an alternative in a book. My change of heart and mind has come slowly. Just because an adjective modifies a noun grammatically, does not mean that the adjective is accurate, fair, non-partisan. What you may see as political correctness, I see as a kind of re-balancing. And remember that AP also rejects the use of “undocumented,” which is a preference of some on the left.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roy-Peter-Clark/100000896693218 Roy Peter Clark

    Mary, in retrospect, my example is not a particularly good one on how to “write around” the problem. A good reminder that I should, whenever possible, prefer the actual over the hypothetical. On the other hand, I do not embrace your implication that a text that is not offensive or loaded, must be lifeless. In fact, removing standard labels might open a door for some original language. Thanks.

  • Mary Jamison

    Noble conclusion, but is it workable? The last thing I’m likely to read is lifeless writing, however much the labored work-around imbues that writing with neutrality. And in that particular example, who’s the “they”? And there’s a whiff of calling the state police liars in that construct, too.

  • Paul Carter

    The AP today took step away from being a reliable news organization, and instead moved towards becoming a propaganda organ. News organizations use words to inform their readers or listeners while propaganda organs use words to deceive them.

    I will be attending my 55th high school reunion in June, and my memory of 12th grade English is just a bit fuzzy. Still, I recall that 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. They are not the least bit confused by the term illegal immigrant. It is the fact that American voters are not confused that drives the efforts of pro-amnesty groups to pressure news organizations like AP and the New York Times to sanitize their descriptions of illegal immigrants.

    US citizens have an unfavorable opinion of law breakers which explains their unfavorable opinion of illegal immigrants. AP appears to have alined itself with pro-illegal alien, amnesty advocates and is using this change to deceive its readers. You should remember that as AP move away from reporting the news, its own prestige and value as a news organization is diminished. From this day forward I will always wonder if an AP story has been sanitized for the benefit of some special interest, and will more likely than not assume that it has.