The Times Is Behind the Times

PHOTO: Undocumented immigrants boarded a bus, with the words painted in Spanish and English No Papers No Fear, Journey for Justice.

Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote yesterday that her paper should continue using the term "illegal immigrant" because it is accurate and isn't "meant to be uncaring."

Here, at ABC/Univision, we wrote about how that term is dehumanizing to those it describes and how linguists find it technically inaccurate. But, those arguments seem to have fallen on deaf ears. One of the most fundamental reasons we don't use "illegal immigrant" is because the phrasing is because it is outdated.

Nearly half of Hispanic voters, who are U.S. citizens, find the term "illegal immigrant" overtly offensive, according to an unvetted Fox News poll from earlier this year.

Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at the The New York Times said in an email that the paper does not strive to "lead the way or be in the vanguard of promoting or spreading changes in language." Rather, he says, the paper strives to "reflect existing usage."

If that is indeed the case, when it comes to the term "illegal immigrant," the Gray Lady is late to the game.

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.

On Tuesday, a Latino journalist from within the Times' walls came out publicly against Sullivan's opinion. Simon Romero, the New York Times bureau chief in Brazil, tweeted yesterday: "Sadly, I disagree."

We asked media companies that have recently decided to drop "illegal immigrant" or that prefer to use "undocumented" to speak to us about their policy. Many admitted that their policies been implemented inconsistently and that the "illegal immigrant" phrasing is sometimes is still published in error.

But, here's what they told us:

"HuffPost generally uses 'undocumented immigrant' and hasn't been using "illegal immigrant" since at least 2008, when we decided to avoid the term because it carried an unnecessary political charge... ." Our editors realized that there are other good and concise phrases that describe the same group of people. In fact, 'undocumented immigrant' is more concise than using what most people really mean: "alleged illegal immigrant." It's also more precise because it indicates the specific issue with their immigration status. We wouldn't call an unlicensed driver an "illegal driver," as that could mean any number of things." -- Adam Rose, Huffington Post Standards Editor

"It's NBC News policy to use 'undocumented.'.... We feel 'undocumented' is the most accurate word to describe someone in this country without full documentation." -- Meghan Pianta, NBC News Publicist

"CNN has been discussing this matter for some time and we have been evolving our style. CNN generally prefers the term 'undocumented immigrant' when referring to a individual. The terms 'illegal or illegals' are not used as nouns. As a general term for the issue, however, illegal immigration is used." --Bridget Leininger, Director of Public Relations, CNN

"The word illegal is an accurate description for actions, but not individuals. We don't use it to describe people who commit other crimes. We write about unlicensed drivers, for example, not illegal drivers." -- Former Fox News Latino Managing Editor, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush said in a recent article.

"In short, we made the change in 2010 after much internal discussion and deliberation, concluding that it's legally and journalistically incorrect to describe people who aren't in the United States legally as 'illegal immigrants.' We do not use 'illegal' as a noun. However, we use 'illegal immigration' to describe the movement of people into the United States who don't have proper documentation. As with other alleged violations of the law, reporters and editors must use attribution when writing that someone has broken immigration laws. When such information is relevant, we write that a person is in the country illegally, citing the source. For example: 'Police said the man is in the United States illegally,' or, 'Border Patrol agents said they detained 40 men who were in the country illegally.'" -- Jamie Stockwell, Managing Editor,San Antonio Express-News

"Our goal and policy is to use the term undocumented immigrant or worker, but there have certainly been instances where we have fallen short of that standard," -- Jeffrey Schneider, Senior Vice President, ABC

"We can call various acts or actions illegal, but not the people who commit them," Morcate wrote in Spanish in an email. He added that, "an important sector of our TV audience considers it to be offensive, calling certain immigrants 'illegal.'" He also calls into question "the historical justice in calling Mexican immigrants without papers 'illegal,' taking into account that large parts of U.S. territories once belonged to Mexico." -- Daniel Morcate, Chief Newsroom Editor, Univision

"First of all no human being illegal. It is denigrating to call a person an 'illegal'. Crossing the border 'illegally' or with no documents is a misdemeanor not a crime. The Supreme Court shot down the provision is Arizona's SB1070 that made entering the country without proper documents a state crime. If entering the country illegally made you an 'illegal', then we would have to use the term to refer to others who commit misdemeanors such as: 'illegal vandal', 'illegal tax-evader', 'illegal-loiterer', 'illegal shoplifter' -- Maria Elena Salinas, Univision Anchor

And finally:

"We don't use the term 'illegal immigrant' because it is imprecise and it offends the very people it seeks to describe. Moreover, according to Pew, over half of Latinos say they worry "a lot" or "some" that they, a family member or a close friend could be deported. This is a personal issue to the U.S. Hispanic community. To dehumanize and insult the people that are close to us, the major part of our core audience, would be wrong. We believe in accuracy and in respecting people's humanity. The term 'Illegal immigrant' fails in that criteria." -- Fernando Vila-Rodriguez, Managing Editor, ABC/Univision

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Update: CBS News initially told ABC/Univision that they prefer to use the term "undocumented" when referring to individuals. They later issued a statement that at times they also use "undocumented worker" or "illegal immigrant."

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