One of the first things any journalist learns is that when you’re reporting on someone accused of a crime, you always use “alleged” to indicate that the accused has not been convicted and could very well be innocent. Until a court pronounces guilt, it’s the “alleged” bank robber, the “alleged” jaywalker and the “alleged” candy-snatcher.
And yet, whenever immigration issues make it into the news, journalists and media organizations regularly use the phrase “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants, skipping not just the trial but branding the person as criminality itself. It is for this reason that major news organizations like ABC and the Associated Press have banned the use of the politically charged term, which many in the Latino community regard as a racial slur, and instead require writers and reporters to come up with more precise, neutral language to describe those in the country without permission.
“The terms ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘illegal alien’ are incendiary and tend to incite fear and hatred,” said Mekahlo Medina, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “And as a journalist, it’s completely inaccurate to identify somebody as an illegal immigrant because you’re categorizing a person and not the actual act.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s presidential debate, where immigration issues will likely come up, the NAHJ and Define American, a pro-immigrant group founded by activist José Antonio Vargas, have asked CNN to discontinue its use of the phrase. They launched an online petition calling on the network to stop using the term, which on-air talent at CNN continue to use and which also appears in on-air graphics and online headlines. The request is part of a broader push from both organizations to encourage news outlets to modernize their guidelines, using the hashtag #WordsMatter.
“We had noticed in a number of interviews that CNN was really all over the place with the language they used,” said Ryan Eller, executive director of Define American. “It was concerning because CNN is hosting the Republican presidential debate and after the last presidential debate, we saw an uptick in negative language being used.”
“What we are hearing on the ground is that this has resulted in an increase in violence and discrimination against people of color,” Eller added.
In the last three months, as immigration has once again become a salient political issue, CNN has used the term “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” a total of 1,634 times, out of 1,995 times in the past year, according to TV monitoring database TVEyes.
In response to the petition, Geraldine Moriba, the network’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, told NAHJ that “the word ‘illegal’ should never be used as a standalone noun to refer to individuals with documented or undocumented immigration status” and pledged to remind staff of this guideline.
While that would mean CNN wouldn't refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegals,” it wouldn't cover instances in which the word is used as an adjective, like “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien.”
CNN would not confirm to The Huffington Post whether it has an official policy on use of those terms, despite multiple requests.
Define American’s Vargas, who wrote about being undocumented in a widely read 2011 New York Times article, said the continued use of the term reflects the media’s racial and ethnic homogeneity.
“It gets to the issue of diversity in newsrooms,” Vargas said. “When these decisions are made, how many Hispanic and Asian journalists are part of the conversation?”
The continued use of racially tinged rhetoric in the mainstream media also speaks to the powerlessness of the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. Journalists are careful to qualify that crimes have only been “alleged” in part as a precaution against libel suits, but they needn’t fear legal action from some of society’s most vulnerable members.
The New York Times is another target of the NAHJ and Define American’s #WordsMatter campaign. Vargas first approached the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, about the issue in 2012. At the time, Sullivan addressed the topic in an online article, saying, “At this point, I don’t know enough.”
But Sullivan -- who as the Times’ reader advocate does not have a policy-making role -- has since evolved. “I wrote a few times on this, ultimately saying that my position had changed, and I no longer thought the phrase was the right one,” Sullivan told HuffPost in an email. She explained her evolution on the matter in a blog post. “Language evolves and it’s time for these changes,” she wrote. “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.”
Philip Corbett, the Times’ standards editor, has in the past decried the use of “undocumented” as a euphemism. “Often those phrases seem deliberately chosen to try to soften or minimize the significance of the lack of legal status,” Corbett told Poynter in 2012. “We avoid those euphemisms just as we avoid phrases that tend to cast a more pejorative light on immigrants. For example, we steer clear of the shorthand ‘illegals’ and also the word ‘aliens,’ both of which we think have needlessly negative connotations.”
But the paper, too, has evolved -- though not as swiftly nor as decisively as Sullivan. In 2013, the Times announced it would encourage its writers to use more precise terms to describe those living in the country without authorization, but did not go so far as to ban the use of “illegal immigrant.”
“Our new guidelines recognize that many people object to those terms, and we encouraged our reporters to consider alternatives and especially to be specific whenever possible about a particular person's situation and status,” Corbett said in an email. “No term is perfect or works in every situation, but there are a range of alternatives, including but not limited to adjectives like ‘unauthorized’ or ‘undocumented.’”
Vargas believes that the impetus to change the language reporters use to talk about immigration will ultimately come from the journalists who report on immigration issues.
“This is going to end with what kind of pressure individual reporters can put on their news organizations,” he said.