Associated Press drops term 'illegal immigrant' from AP Stylebook, used by hundreds of media outlets

Term dropped in efforts to avoid 'labels'

The Associated Press, the largest news-gathering outlet in the world, will no longer use the term "illegal immigrant."

The news came in the form of a blog entry authored by AP's Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll on Tuesday afternoon, explaining that the decision is part of the company's ongoing attempt to rid their Stylebook of labels.

"The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term 'illegal immigrant' or the use of 'illegal' to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that 'illegal' should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally," Carroll wrote.

The company's decision comes after years of controversy over the term.

Fusion, the ABC-Univision joint venture, wrote last year about how most of America's top college newspapers and major TV networks, including ABC, NBC and CNN, have vowed to stop using the term.

Nearly half of Latino voters polled last year in a Fox News Latino survey said that they find the term "illegal immigrant" offensive.

A coalition of linguists also came together last year to pressure media companies to drop "illegal immigrant," calling it "neither neutral nor accurate."

And some critics of the term, like journalist Maria Hinojosa, argue that those newsrooms that have continued to classify people as "illegal" lack diversity.

Last fall, the AP said they would restrict the usage of "illegal immigrant" to certain circumstances due to the complexity of the immigration experience. Paul Colford, the director of media relations for the AP, addressed the issue in an email, saying that "ongoing, lively, internal conversation" about "illegal immigrant" continued after that announcement.

AP Stylebook editors sat down with a number of groups who were concerned about their entry on the term in recent years and "sought the views of a cross section of AP staffers" on the issue, according to Colford.

Kathleen Carroll also noted in the Tuesday blog post that the AP prefers to label "behavior" rather than "people," writing that instead of using the term "schizophrenic," the AP now prefers saying that one is "diagnosed with schizophrenia."

"And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to 'illegal immigrant' again. We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance," Carroll wrote. "So we have."

For many, the news will surely come as a huge victory. Charlie Garcia, an opinion columnist for Fox News, CNN and The Huffington Post who has spoken out against the term, said last year that getting the AP to drop the term was the "big fish" in the journalistic debate, because it is the most widely used style guide in the U.S.

"The AP is the main problem on this issue, because everybody uses them as an excuse," Garcia said.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) applauded the change on its website.

“NAHJ applauds the AP for the change in its stylebook and urges other media organizations to follow their example,” an article on the site says. “Human beings are not illegal. Actions are illegal.”

The "greater majority" of the 1,400 U.S. newspapers that make up the Associated Press Cooperative likely follow AP style, Colford wrote. Now that the AP has finally come around, making a decision that will affect the word choice of hundreds of outlets across the country, we're still waiting on one major U.S. company to drop the term.

On Tuesday afternoon, The New York Times said that they are also currently considering revisions to their guidelines for using the term "illegal immigrant."

"Coincidentally, we had been expecting to send a memo to the staff soon, possibly this week," Phil Corbett, the Associate Managing Editor for Standards wrote in an email.

Public editor Margaret Sullivan noted in a blog post that their changes "will probably be more incremental" than the AP announcement but aim to "provide more nuance and options." She also noted that while she once came down on the side of "illegal immigrant" her stance has since shifted.

"My position on this has changed over the past several months. So many people find it offensive to refer to a person with an adjective like 'illegal' that I now favor the use of 'undocumented' or 'unauthorized' as alternatives," she wrote.

This is the entry in the AP stylebook:

"illegal immigration - Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

 

"Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented. Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

 

"Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

 

"People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story."