Is Using the Term 'Illegal' A Generational Thing?

PHOTO: The New York Times building in Manhattan.

Two of the biggest names in print journalism, The New York Times and the Associated Press, continue to use the term "illegal immigrant," despite the controversy over the phrase. And this is in a time when editors at many of the nation's top twenty college newspapers, as rated by the Princeton Review, say the term is outdated and inaccurate, and have banned it from their own papers.

Last week, NPR's Maria Hinojosa implied there may be a lack of Hispanic input in the the closed-door meetings at companies which have decided to preserve the term "illegal immigrant." Turns out, less than four percent of full-time journalists at The New York Times are Hispanic (even though New York City is almost 29 percent Hispanic) and at least one of the few Latino journalists on staff publicly expressed his disapproval of the Times' usage of the term.

However, Mark Herring, the editor-in-chief of the North Carolina State University's newspaper, The Technician, suggested that it may also be a generational gap that has led to the continued use of the term by legacy media. It makes sense. After all, American college campuses have a history of accepting minority rights -- gay, women's, African American -- before the rest of the country catches on.

"I think that a lot of college students understand the nuances of the term in a way some [other] adults don't," said Herring. Because the Latino population skews young (one in five children under the age of 18 is Hispanic), he said, many more white college students have Latino peers than those in their parents' generation. In fact, Latino college enrollment reached a record high this year, with Hispanics representing 16.5 percent of all college students between the ages 18 and 24, according to Pew Hispanic Center. This year, Herring launched a bilingual section of The Technician called "Bienvenidos" to include the growing Latino student population at his school.

"I think the Latino community has expressed its discontent with the term," he said. "But it will only be dropped by the media once people who are not Latino understand its ramifications. Whites didn't stop using the N word immediately either when blacks asked them to."

After Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas urged the Gray Lady to drop the term, arguing that it is demeaning to those it describes and offensive to Hispanics, the Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan came to the conclusion that the paper should preserve the term for the sake of "clarity and accuracy."

Many young journalists seem to feel differently. Six out of the seven college papers that responded to requests for comment from Princeton Review's list of top 20 college dailies, said that they tend to avoid the term "illegal immigrant." In addition, The Cornell Sun, which is also on list, pledged to ban the term -- calling it "pejorative" and "incorrect" in a front page editorial this week.

"In our efforts to maintain the journalistic principles of accuracy and neutrality, we condemn the indiscriminate deeming of people as "illegal," the editorial read.

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