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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | Last updated: 5:02am

From the newsroom: 'Illegal' versus 'undocumented' in immigration debate a conversation worth having



Jose Antonio Vargas is calling on all news outlets to drop the use of term “illegal immigrant.”

Right now, he’s focusing on getting the Associated Press and The New York Times to rethink the word.

But we’re paying attention, too.

The state of Arizona grapples with the immigration debate every day, and the issue of loaded language in that debate is especially important to local and state news outlets, including the Arizona Daily Wildcat.

Although the Daily Wildcat maintains an in-house style guide that is usually updated every semester, and we generally prefer “undocumented,” our style manual does not dictate a particular term. Perhaps it’s time to revise it.

In journalism, we try to pick words that will be the most clear and truthful. It’s why we don’t write that someone “passed away” or is “no longer with us.” News isn’t about softening a blow, it’s about reporting what happened.

Sometimes accuracy is grisly. Sometimes accuracy hurts people’s feelings. But when it comes to putting the word “illegal” in front of “immigrant,” are we telling the story in the most accurate way possible?

Last year, the Society of Professional Journalists voted to recommend that newsrooms get rid of the terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant.” A common argument against either term is that only a court can convict someone of something illegal.

Vargas pointed out that “illegal immigrant” is inaccurate because “being in a country without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one.”

Is there a need to criminalize people who aren’t criminals? Is it fair to label a student who was brought to the country when she was 8 as illegal? Does that tell her whole story?

Vargas, who first gained attention in 2011 for coming out as an “illegal immigrant” in a New York Times Magazine article, argued during his keynote address at the 2012 Online News Association conference in San Francisco on Friday that “the term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe,” and argued that there were few other contexts in which someone would be described as “illegal.”

He drew attention to the fact that we wouldn’t call someone driving underage or driving under the influence an “illegal driver.”

Arguments in favor of using “illegal” worry that the drift toward the term “undocumented” is pandering to political correctness and sugarcoating the issue.

Does “undocumented” really tell the story? Does it sound soft and unspecific? It’s less charged than “illegal” — but is it clearer?

The nonprofit organization Define American, founded by Vargas , will monitor the use of the term “illegal.” Consumers will be able to take part by reporting instances of its use by print, broadcast and radio news outlets on Define American’s website.

Vargas told Politico after the ONA conference that although he’s targeting The New York Times and the AP, he also views the term as a local issue.

So here we are, your local paper asking for your opinion. Should we use the term illegal immigrant? Should we use undocumented? Something else entirely?

Let us know what you think.

— Bethany Barnes is the managing editor and readers’ representative for the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at maned@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @betsbarnes


Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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