Language frames discourse. Which is why liberals say "global warming" and "estate tax," and conservatives say "climate change" and "death tax." This sort of dichotomy has been most apparent in ongoing immigration debate, which has birthed a wide range of synonyms: "undocumented immigrant," "illegals," "illegal aliens," and, of course, the often default "illegal immigrant."
Last month, the Associated Press decided to stop using those loaded terms. Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll called the practice "a lazy device" that "ends up pigeonholing people or creating long descriptive titles where you use some main event in someone's life to become the modifier before their name."
This week, Poynter reported, the San Francisco Chronicle is following that lead. The paper's reporters will no longer refer to people using the term "illegal immigrant."
The Chronicle's style book -- mirroring the AP's entry on the subject -- now states: "Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant."
The same standard applies to "illegal alien," "an illegal," "illegals" or "undocumented immigrant."
Reporters are told to "specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?" The updated style book notes that "acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission."
The Chron is somewhat of an early adapter of this practice among dailies. The original innovator was the San Antonio Express-News, which stopped using "illegal immigrant" in 2008, replacing it with "unauthorized" or "undocumented" immigrant. But the AP's April 2 announcement has spurred industry change. Eight days later, USA Today laid out its own version of the style change: "The term illegal immigration is acceptable, but do not label people as illegal immigrants, except in direct quotes," read a memo to staff, published by media critic Jim Romanesko. "Undocumented immigrant, undocumented worker and unauthorized immigrant are acceptable terms -- depending on accuracy, clarity and context -- for foreign nationals who are in the country illegally."
On April 23, the New York Times, while not prohibiting the term, told its reporters and editors to "consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions." On May 1, the Los Angeles Times declared an AP-style ban on the term in order to "provide relevance and context and to avoid labels."