February 13, 2012

Later today, the AP Stylebook will add the term “illegitimate child” to its online version. The new entry advises against using the term and suggests using phrases such as “the child, whose mother was not married” or “whose parents were not married,” instead.

“It doesn’t come up very often in our news copy, but it’s a term that’s stigmatizing, and unfairly so,” said David Minthorn, deputy standards editor at the AP and one of the Stylebook editors. “We try to be sensitive to issues like this, so it seemed logical to take it into the Stylebook.”

The term is OK to use if it’s part of a quote, but otherwise “our guidance would be to use something more sensitive,” Minthorn said by phone. The Stylebook regularly modifies old terms and adds new ones that reflect the evolution of language. Recently, it has been criticized for not changing its entry on “illegal immigrant.”

Julie Drizin, director of the Journalism Center on Children & Families, asked journalists last week to stop using the term “illegitimate child.” Drizin wrote that she’s been troubled by the pejorative phrase for years and has seen it appear in stories about John Edwards, Jesse Jackson, the late Senator Strom Thurmond and Arnold Schwarzenegger. She explains why she thinks journalists should find alternatives:

Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “illegitimate” as “not recognized as lawful offspring; specifically: born of parents not married to each other…not sanctioned by law.”

What’s wrong with illegitimate children? Nothing. Nothing is wrong with the children, but something is very wrong with the society that continues to brand children as “less than” because of the circumstances of their birth. The phrase “illegitimate child” persists as negative baggage that kids are forced to carry against their will.

Drizin said journalists should challenge their colleagues who use “illegitimate child” and help start a conversation about its implications.

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Mallary Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight…
Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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