Media Diversity Cops Say Only a Judge, Not a Journalist, Can Call an Immigrant 'Illegal'

Matthew Boyle of The Daily Caller reported the "Diversity Committee" of the Society of Professional Journalists wants a yearlong "education campaign designed to inform and sensitize journalists" that the words "illegal immigrant" are hurtful and insensitive. In an article for the SPJ magazine The Quill, reporter Leo Laurence insisted that since our legal system presumes innocence until proven guilty, "Simply put, only a judge, not a journalist, can say that someone is an illegal." (The National Association of Hispanic Journalists has also argued that the I-word unfairly "criminalizes a person.")

At the national convention in Las Vegas, the Diversity Committee resolution urged journalists to use the phrase “undocumented immigrant(s), and avoid both “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien.” In several MRC studies of TV immigration coverage, we found the networks still primarily use "illegal immigrants," but some journalists (like CBS's Harry Smith) used "undocumented" as a matter of routine. Laurence explained:

One of two action steps the committee identified is for SPJ “to engage in a yearlong education campaign designed to inform and sensitize journalists to the best language when writing and reporting on persons from different cultures and backgrounds,” [Diversity Committee chairman George] Daniels wrote in an e-mail.

This “would aid SPJ membership in understanding the importance of our current, national discussion of immigration,” he added. “This is not about being politically correct,” he stressed.

“We, in SPJ, want to make the argument that being sensitive to those we cover is just the ethical thing to do since we as SPJ members aim to ‘minimize harm’ when we report,” he added.

They don't want to be "politically correct," but using plainly descriptive words like "illegal" is causing societal "harm." Boyle interviewed some experts for a response:

Conservative columnist and media personality Michelle Malkin thinks this campaign shows that SPJ is not an objective news source.

“I think that they should drop the pretense that they are an objective news organization, especially because the euphemism that they favor is far more politically loaded than the one that they’re trying to replace,” Malkin said in a phone interview with The Daily Caller. “It’s a farce to call someone an ‘undocumented worker’ who is full of fake, fraudulent documents and that is usually the case with many of the suspected illegal immigrants that these stories refer to.”

Even the Associated Press, which conservatives have critiqued for their use of labeling in the past, recommends using the term “illegal immigrant.”

“The AP Stylebook created its entry on ‘illegal immigrant’ in 2004, in response to renewed debate over border security and the enforcement of immigration laws after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,” AP’s deputy standards editor David Minthorn explained in an e-mail. “Together, the terms describe a person who resides in a country unlawfully by residency or citizenship requirements. Alternatives like undocumented worker, illegal alien or illegals lack precision or may have negative connotations. Illegal immigrant, on the other hand, is accurate and neutral for news stories.”

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis