Poynter Lesson for Journalists: Avoid the Word 'Illegal' for Immigration Stories

O. Ricardo Pimentel, Editorial Page Editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writes at Poynter Online, the top site for journalists to debate their trade's issues, that reporters should refrain from using the word "illegal" to describe.... those who are here illegally.

Did you know that it's not criminal to be an undocumented immigrant? In fact, one of the burning issues in the recent and ongoing debate on immigration reform is whether to make such mere presence a felony.

If you didn't know this, you probably didn't read past that headline. You know, the one with the word Illegals emblazoned in large type. Maybe even in your own newspaper.

"There he goes again," some of you are probably thinking. "Politically correct Ricardo." That's one take, I guess. Another might be, "trying-to-be-accurate Ricardo." It's a matter of both grammar and law. Illegal as a noun offends both -- not to mention the offense given by stigmatizing an entire group of people.

Therein lies the rub. The essay is intended to keep journalists from "stigmatizing an entire group of people."

Yes, we're talking about illegal immigration. But illegal is a modifier, not generally a noun. And presence without the required papers, under current law, is a civil violation, not a criminal one.

"But they crossed the border illegally," you say. Maybe -- but maybe not. Many of the people here without documents have overstayed their visas. In other words, they got here legally. And is a child, who had no say in the matter but was brought to this country by migrant parents without documents, illegal?

So crossing the border is illegal, and so is overstaying a visa. That certainly seems to merit the "illegal" label. Perhaps using a more benign label for the children is justified, but that is the only substance of the article.

Funny how it's OK to use illegal, without an alleged in front, only in the context of immigration. Imagine this headline: "Illegal robs bank" over a story in which your common, garden-variety, native-born criminal holds up one of your local banks.

Robbing a bank is illegal, so one could make a strong argument that this headline would be OK. I'm guessing you still wouldn't use it. Even though we're talking about a real, honest-to-goodness crime, not an act that some aspire to make a crime. And even if this person is caught, he becomes a suspect -- in other words, an alleged bank robber.

He of all people should know that journalese, the shorthand words and phrases used to convey a concept quickly, are the bread and butter (for example) of journalism. Here is an ideal journalese sentence from Wikipedia:

"Mean streets and densely wooded areas populated by ever-present lone gunmen."

But I view the use of the term illegal -- as a noun -- as more of a reflection and consequence of American newsrooms than anything else. It's pretty clear that too many newspapers simply don't know how to cover immigration. Part of it is a language problem. Too few newsrooms have Spanish speakers. But part of it is also a cultural problem. Too few newsrooms are bicultural, with deeper understanding of Latino cultures than can be derived by cursory observance or passing acquaintance.

In other words, if they had more Spanish speakers in the newsroom, the status of the people here illegally could be blurred over much more effectively.