The Times Is Behind the Times

The NYT public editor wrote that her paper should use "illegal immigrant."

ByABC News
October 3, 2012, 4:01 PM

Oct. 3, 2012 — -- 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 One of the most fundamental reasons we don't use "illegal immigrant" is because the phrasing is because it is outdated.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