By Deirdre Edgar
The Los Angeles Times has announced new guidelines for covering immigration.
The goal is to “provide relevance and context and to avoid labels.”
That means stories will no longer refer to individuals as “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented immigrants,” but instead will describe a person’s circumstances.
A memo from The Times’ Standards and Practices Committee announcing the change explains the move away from labels:
” ‘Illegal immigrants’ is overly broad and does not accurately apply in every situation. The alternative suggested by the 1995 guidelines, ‘undocumented immigrants,’ similarly falls short of our goal of precision. It is also untrue in many cases, as with immigrants who possess passports or other documentation but lack valid visas.”
Though this is a change in written guidelines, the philosophy is already in practice in The Times.
A recent Column One article by Cindy Chang introduced the subject this way:
“She was 6 months old when she crossed the border illegally, carried in her mother’s arms.”
In a March column, Steve Lopez described a similar situation:
“… she and her family had moved here a decade ago from the Philippines without papers.”
And an April article by Brian Bennett and Lisa Mascaro about the Senate’s work on an immigration bill used this language:
“If passed, the historic bill would expand legal immigration, ramp up border security, tighten sanctions against employers who hire people in the U.S. unlawfully, and open a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants who either entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas.”
The Associated Press, whose stylebook is followed by most newspapers and is the basis for much of L.A. Times style, announced April 2 that it would move away from labels and no longer use the term “illegal immigrant.”
The full memo, with the new guidelines, follows:
To the newsroom:
Immigration is one of the most contentious and compelling subjects of our time. In our coverage, we aim to report with authority and balance — to be fair, nuanced and precise. We know that language matters and that our word choices must likewise be fair, nuanced and precise.
The Times adopted its current style on immigration-related language in 1995, recommending the use of “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented immigrants” in lieu of “illegal aliens.” Those phrases have become highly politicized since then, prompting the Standards and Practices Committee to consider an update. The committee has been consulting with reporters and editors from across the newsroom since last fall, as well as meeting with advocates seeking an end to the media’s use of “illegal immigrant.” After hearing strong arguments for and against the current Times style, we concluded that it was time for a new approach.
“Illegal immigrants” is overly broad and does not accurately apply in every situation. The alternative suggested by the 1995 guidelines, “undocumented immigrants,” similarly falls short of our goal of precision. It is also untrue in many cases, as with immigrants who possess passports or other documentation but lack valid visas.
The Associated Press also reevaluated its usage of “illegal immigrant.” It now proscribes that phrase, among other changes, in its approach to immigration-related language.
Our revised guidelines, which expand upon the language in AP’s new listing for “illegal immigration,” advocate taking a careful, case-by-case approach to all stories. We include examples of how to implement the new style.
This column was originally published on LATimes.com on May 1, 2013.