AP called kids 'detainees' because 'We did not want to sugar-coat the facts'

The Guardian

Guardian assistant news editor Erin McCann says she "was apoplectic" when she saw AP's captions for a story on immigrant children in Border Patrol facilities. It was a "disturbing, slanted and nearly unethical choice to call the young people held in these facilities not children but something else: 'detainees,'" she writes.

[caption id="attachment_256424" align="alignleft" width="460"]Children color at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas on June 18.  (AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool) Children color at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool)[/caption]

"I am so angered by this because the language journalists use here matters," McCann writes. "We are about to have a national debate about what to do with these children, and AP has already begun framing them as 'the enemy.'"

Many news outlets preserved the term "detainees" in captions, McCann notes: "Either they didn't notice, in which case they're bad (or, ok, overworked, busy, multi-tasking) journalists, or they didn't care, in which case they're really bad journalists."

McCann's challenge to AP's style comes a little more than a year after the news co-op changed its style on the term "illegal immigrant." At the time, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll told Poynter the change came in part because of ongoing work at AP dedicated to “ridding the Stylebook of labels.”

The use of such labels, she said, “ends up pigeonholing people or creating long descriptive titles where you use some main event in someone’s life to become the modifier before their name.”

McCann didn't ask AP for comment on her opinion piece, a decision Paul Colford, AP's director of media relations, called "Unfortunate" in an email to Poynter.

"We did not want to sugar-coat the facts here," AP West regional editor Traci Carl told Poynter. "These are federal government holding facilities, and the children can't leave, even if they want to." Carl continues:

We agree that journalists have a responsibility to bring readers the truth. And the truth is that these children are being held in conditions that people on all sides of the debate say are less than ideal. That was the point of the coverage and the media tour.

The AP was among the first to report, with authority and sourcing, the conditions inside these federal government holding facilities, and we remain committed to making sure the public gets the best information possible.

"Detainees," Colford said, "is a jarring term but the situation is jarring: kids are locked up as adults might be. The photos and captions sought to show this."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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