Editor’s note: After this article appeared, the SPJ added a note on its site describing its posting as an opinion piece that does not “reflect the views of SPJ.”
A diversity plan from a group of journalists says reporters should not be using the term “illegal aliens” because it is not constitutional.
“Frequent use of the phrases ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘illegal alien’ by our mainstream media is being questioned in order to remain faithful to the principles of our U.S. Constitution,” Leo Laurence wrote in the “Diversity Toolbox” column on the website for the Quill, which is produced by the Society of Professional Journalists.
He said the organization’s “Diversity Committee” met during its 2010 convention in Las Vegas and “decided to engage in a yearlong educational campaign designed to inform and sensitize journalists as to the best language to use when writing and reporting on undocumented immigrants.”
The concept, however, elicited some pointed criticism from analyst Alana Goodman of the Culture and Media Institute, who noted that the campaign appears to be targeted toward one situation, when there are many others that also could be addressed.
“The label ‘remains offensive to Latinos, and especially Mexicans, and to the fundamentals of American jurisprudence,’ wrote Leo E. Laurence,” said Goodman.
“Seeing as most Latinos in the U.S. are not illegal immigrants – and since the term has no racial or ethnic connotation – it’s hard to see how it would cause offense to this group. In fact, the only people who should really be put off by the term are illegal immigrants themselves (or their advocates), who don’t believe unlawful residency in the U.S. should be a crime,” Goodman wrote.
The term “illegal immigrant,” in fact, is cited in a recent style book for the Associated Press, which often has advertised it is the world’s oldest and largest newgathering organization, as “the preferred term, rather than ‘illegal alien’ or ‘undocumented worker.'”
It is used, the book documents, “to describe those who have entered the country illegally.”
Goodman noted that Laurence believes, “Only a judge, not a journalist, can say that someone is an illegal.”
“Obviously you don’t need to go to law school to understand that basic concept. And it’s certainly important to use words like ‘suspected’ when writing about a specific individual whose immigration status has not yet been determined. But it has absolutely nothing to do with getting rid of the term ‘illegal immigrant’ altogether,” Goodman wrote.
“Drunk drivers are also innocent until convicted in a court of law – and yet the Miami Herald headline ‘Miami police cracking down on drunk drivers’ hasn’t warranted a similar critique from SPJ’s civil libertarian crusaders. Car theft, too, is considered a crime that must be adjudicated through the legal system. But when the AP reports that ‘Newport News police want to reduce car thefts,’ does the SPJ consider this a violation of the constitutional rights of the car thief community,” she wondered.
Laurence argued that “one of the most basic of our constitutional rights is that everyone (including non-citizen) is innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law.”
His recommendation is that reporters avoid both “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien.”
Laurence wrote, “Some believe the phrase ‘illegal alien’ originated with fiery, anti-immigrant groups along the U.S.-Mexico border, such as the Minutemen.”
That’s fine, said Minuteman leader Jim Gilchrist.
“Why don’t we just call them a suspected illegal aliens,” he told WND.
Using some of the other terms just would muddy the waters, he said.
“I prefer to be more specific, get right to the point. According to U.S. law, they are illegal aliens,” he said.
He said that fits with what is done in other cases, as in the “suspected bank robber,” who has not yet been convicted.
“The SPJ diversity committee says ‘undocumented immigrant’ is a more appropriate description. Yet living in the U.S. without any documentation of citizenship is illegal,” wrote Goodman.
“Using the term ‘undocumented immigrant’ is disingenuous, because it downplays the severity of the crime. It’s like calling a car thief an ‘unauthorized driver’ – it’s misleading to the point of inaccuracy. And when a journalist makes the decision to mislead readers, in an attempt to portray a person or group in a more positive light, it can’t be called anything but pure advocacy. It’s a shame that an important group like SPJ is promoting such tactics,” Goodman wrote.