Is Using the Term 'Illegal' A Generational Thing?

College newspapers across the country drop "Illegal Immigrant."

October 15, 2012, 9:29 AM

— -- 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when editors at many of the nation's top twenty college newspapers, as rated by the Princeton Review, say the term is outdated and inaccurate, and have banned it from their own papers.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.

The nation's oldest college daily, The Yale Daily News, which has had dozens of its alums join institutions like the New York Times and the Associated Press, recently decided to ban the phrase from its pages. (Full disclosure: I contributed to the paper as a columnist during my college years.)

"The conclusion we arrived at is that the term 'illegal immigrant' should be avoided because the word 'illegal' modifies the person, i.e. the immigrant, rather than what is actually illegal, which is his or her action," Alon Harish, the former managing editor of the Yale Daily News, wrote in an email.

The editors-in-chief at the University of Kansas and Tufts University dailies said their papers haven't yet developed codified style on the issue, but that most of their writers tend to naturally avoid "illegal immigrant" when describing fellow students.

"Our writers and copy editors usually defer to AP style, which has been 'illegal immigrant.' But many of us have come to see that language as unsatisfactory and prefer variations on 'undocumented student'," Ian Cummings, the editor-in-chief of the University Daily Kansan wrote in an email. He also noted that it is likely an explicit rule to avoid "illegal immigrant" will develop in the coming year. Rebecca Santiago, the editor-in-chief at the The Tufts Daily wrote in email, "we feel that 'illegal immigrants' fails to clarify that the immigration status of the people in question is illegal rather than the people themselves."

Unlike the others papers that responded, the University of North Carolina's Daily Tar Heel still uses the term. Their editor-in-chief, Andy Thomasan said they do so because they subscribe to the AP style guide and no one has ever expressed to them a discontent with the language.

"There hasn't been any pressure for us to even re-examine our style," Thomasan wrote. Notably, only 2 percent of UNC's most recently admitted class is Hispanic. Nearly half of Hispanic voters said they find the term offensive in a poll conducted by Fox News Latino this year.

Ryan Rainey, the editor in chief of The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin, says its only a matter of time until all outlets realize the terms are outdated. ABC, NBC, CNN, and The Huffington Post, among others, have dropped the phrases in recent years. At the very least, ABC/Univision's informal poll of college papers suggests that tomorrow's newsrooms may move away from the divisive term with input from a younger and more diverse generation of journalists.

"There are terms for a lot of different groups within society that have phased out over the last several decades and I don't think this is any different," Rainey said.

Although Rainey grew up in a small town in Illinois where "illegal" was commonly used, he said that he's since learned how damaging the term can be to the immigration debate.

"It's counterproductive if you believe in a public service model of journalism," he said. "It alienates readers, it alienates sources, it alienates a pretty wide swath of people. So why would you use it?"


Update: Since publishing, The Cornell Sun, which is also on the Princeton Review's list of top college papers, has released a statement taking a strong line against the term "illegal immigrant." The article was updated to reflect this statement.

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