AP Ditches ‘Illegal’ Label

"No One Is Illegal" banner (cc photo: Vertigogen)

Now AP agrees. (cc photo: Vertigogen)

The Associated Press announced a change in their style guide: The wire service will no longer refer to “illegal immigrants,” except in direct quotes. The term “illegal,” AP‘s new rules state, refers only to actions, and not to people.

Though they say it’s just the result of an ongoing in-house effort to rid the Stylebook of “labels,” the change is undoubtedly a victory for activists, who have called for years for journalists to stop using the term. Not only because it’s dehumanizing. As AP‘s executive editor Kathleen Carroll points out, it’s also bad reporting, a “lazy device” that obscures meaningful distinctions.

Rinku Sen of Colorlines.com–whose “Drop the I Word” campaign was critical here–concurs, but adds that that “laziness” has real-world impact, blocking reasonable discussion of policy issues. For years, Sen wrote,

immigration restrictionists have been stopping all discussion cold with “what about illegal don’t you understand?” Well, we did understand–that the word hid severe problems in the policy, that it has been applied selectively to people of color (undocumented, green-card holding, and citizens alike), and that it fuels hateful action.

If AP‘s style change reflects awareness of those harmful impacts, on people as well as reporting, it’s hard to see what excuse other outlets have for continuing in the old way. So far, the Chicago Tribune has indicated they won’t change because it would make headline writing too hard. And the New York Times reacted strangely, with ombud Margaret Sullivan telling readers the paper plans to make changes, but “the Times‘ changes will probably be more incremental.”

Once you’ve acknowledged that something’s the right thing to do, it’s hard to see why you’d want to do it slowly. But if AP‘s move shows the times are changing, maybe the Times can change too. 


About Janine Jackson

Program Director and Co-producer of CounterSpin
Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR's magazine, Extra! and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC's Nightline and CNN Headline News, among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW’s Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an M.A. in sociology from the New School for Social Research.