'Illegal Immigrant' Debate: Univision Takes On The New York Times

A poster with an image of Cesar Chavez and the motto "Si se puede (Yes we can") is seen at an orientation seminar for illegal
A poster with an image of Cesar Chavez and the motto "Si se puede (Yes we can") is seen at an orientation seminar for illegal immigrants, to determine if they qualify for temporary work permits, at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), in Los Angeles, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Schools and consulates have been flooded with requests for documents since President Barack Obama’s administration said many young illegal immigrants may be eligible for two-year renewable work permits. The new policy has left schools and consulates scrambling for quick fixes ranging from new online forms, reassigned workers and extended hours. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Jose Antonio Vargas may have reenergized the debate over whether to use the term “illegal immigrant,” but Univision’s taking it to a whole new level.

The nation's top-rated Spanish-language broadcast network took The New York Times to task last week in a series of articles on its English-language website, after The Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan defended the paper’s decision to continue using the term “illegal immigrant,” in its pages and online. Sullivan explained her decision as a matter of accuracy. Univision pointed out that Latinos largely find the term offensive and intimated that The New York Times' decision may have more to do with lack of diversity than journalistic ethics.

In a post to her blog on Oct. 2, Sullivan wrote that, after thinking about the debate for a couple weeks, she had sided against the term “undocumented.”

Just as “illegal tenant” in a real estate story (another phrase you could have seen in Times articles or headlines) is brief and descriptive, so is “illegal immigrant.” In neither case is there an implication that those described that way necessarily have committed a crime, although in some cases they may have. The Times rightly forbids the expressions “illegals” and “illegal aliens.”

Univision shot back in a series of articles critiquing Sullivan's logic and portraying the paper as out-of-touch with Latinos.

The day after Sullivan’s post, Univision dredged up a long list of terms The New York Times once allowed in its pages. A partial list includes the terms “wetbacks,” “Negro,” “Jap,” “Redskins,” “Chinaman” and “homo.”

In a separate post filed the same day titled “The Times Is Behind the Times,” Univision noted that media outlets that aim to reach Latino audiences keep away from the term “illegal immigrant.”

In many newsrooms where Latinos have a seat at the table, the term "illegal immigrant" has been dropped. NBC, which started NBC Latino this year, dropped the term. ABC, which is part of our new partnership with Univision, dropped the term. CNN, after making recent Latino hires, announced that they prefer to use "undocumented." The Miami Herald and the San Antonio Express-News, which both have a large Hispanic readership, have dropped the term. Even Fox News, a cable channel viewed by the public to be the most conservative network in a 2009 Pew survey, took a step in the same direction when it dropped illegal in favor of "undocumented" on their Fox News Latino site.

The Huffington Post prefers the term “undocumented immigrant,” and has avoided the term “illegal immigrant” since 2008.

Univision isn’t the only one pushing papers like The New York Times to change its position.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists launched a campaign to get newspapers to drop the term “illegal immigrant” back in 2006. "It is much easier to dehumanize and to silence somebody when you're calling them an illegal," then-Executive Director of NAHJ Ivan Roman told the American Journalism Review in 2010.

On Sunday's edition of "Up with Chris Hayes," journalist Maria Hinojosa echoed the notion that media outlets may decline to drop the term "illegal immigrant" because not enough Latinos have input in style decisions. Almost half of likely Hispanic voters find the term "illegal immigrant" offensive, according to a Fox News Latino poll released this year.

“I want to know who’s in those style meetings and how diverse they are,” said Maria Hinojosa.

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Sullivan does not set editorial policy for The New York Times, but as public editor her positions can influence style and language use decisions at the paper.

At least one Latino journalist at The New York Times dissented from Sullivan’s view. Simon Romero, the paper’s bureau chief in Brazil, tweeted:



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