"Illegal" Descriptors of Undocumented Rejected by Journalism Society

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) just voted to do something that I thought was already set in stone in American newsrooms (drop use of the term "illegal alien"), but the organization also forbid a term I'd figured was the P.C. alternative ("illegal immigrant").

Based on a recommendation forwarded by its Diversity Committee, SPJ decided at its just-concluded convention in New Orleans that only a court of law can decide when an individual has committed an illegal act.

The Society of Professional Journalists, formerly known as Sigma Delta Chi, is one of the oldest organization representing journalists in the United States and is dedicated to the free practice of journalism.

Diversity Committee member Leo Laurence had suggested as alternative terms "undocumented workers" or "undocumented immigrants" (which I thought was already set in . . . oh, never mind). That was originally rejected by SPJ's Resolutions Committee, which recommended taking the matter to the Associated Press stylebook committee, which last year concluded "illegal immigrant" is correct usage. The AP Stylebook is the bible for correct word usage in American newsrooms, although some (including OC Weekly) do tweak some entries to account for local style.

The AP had found alternatives like illegals, illegal alien and undocumented worker lack precision or bring to the minds of readers negative connotations when it comes to describing people in the U.S. unlawfully due to residency or citizenship requirements.

But Rebecca Aguilar, who belongs to SPJ and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, made an emotional plea at the convention to reject any terms that include "illegal" because they are offensive to Latinos like her mother who were once in the country unlawfully but later became citizens.

The final resolution that was passed outlawed "illegal" descriptors but also offered no alternative terms.

Needless to say, groups like the conservative Accuracy in Media are not exactly bullish on the resolution.

"The only people offended are those in the SPJ who disagree with the efforts of those who are fighting the illegal immigration problem in this country," writes AIM's Don Irvine. "By passing this resolution they are clearly taking a political stand on the issue, which brings into question their desire for objectivity when reporting the news."

The resolution follows on the next page:

"WHEREAS, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges all journalists to be 'honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information' and;

"WHEREAS, mainstream news reports are increasingly using the politically charged phrase 'illegal immigrant' and the more offensive and bureaucratic 'illegal alien' to describe undocumented immigrants, particularly Latinos and;

"WHEREAS, a fundamental principle embedded in our U.S. Constitution is that everyone (including non-citizens) is considered innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law and;

"WHEREAS, this constitutional doctrine, often described as 'innocent-until-proven-guilty,' applies not just to U.S. Citizens but to everyone in the United States and;

"WHEREAS, only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act and;

"WHEREAS, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is also concerned with the increasing use of pejorative and potentially inaccurate terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States;

"THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists convention of delegates: urges journalists and style guide editors to stop the use of illegal alien and encourage continuous discussion and re-evaluation of the use of illegal immigrant in news stories."


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