SPJ Diversity Committee launches journalistic campaign against the term ‘illegal immigrant’

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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The Diversity Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is seeking to “inform and sensitize” reporters nationwide about how “offensive” the term “illegal immigrant” is to Latinos.

Diversity Committee member Leo Laurence announced the campaign against “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” terminology in the latest issue of the organization’s magazine, Quill, writing that those who have not obtained citizenship but have entered the country without any prior approval should be called “undocumented workers” or “undocumented immigrants.”

In his report, Laurence quotes SPJ Diversity Committee chairman George Daniels as saying, “this is not about being politically correct,” but about aiming to “minimize harm,” when reporting. When Daniels says “minimize harm,” he is referring to one of the major tenets of SPJ’s code of ethics, which many journalists nationwide follow.

Laurence defends SPJ’s new campaign by offering an interpretation of the Constitution that provides for constitutional rights for everyone, including non-citizens, saying that any person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. He said that, constitutionally, a judge is the only person who can deem anyone or anything “illegal.”

Conservative columnist and media personality Michelle Malkin thinks this campaign shows that SPJ is not an objective news source.

“I think that they should drop the pretense that they are an objective news organization, especially because the euphemism that they favor is far more politically loaded than the one that they’re trying to replace,” Malkin said in a phone interview with The Daily Caller. “It’s a farce to call someone an ‘undocumented worker’ who is full of fake, fraudulent documents and that is usually the case with many of the suspected illegal immigrants that these stories refer to.”

Even the Associated Press, which conservatives have critiqued for their use of labeling in the past, recommends using the term “illegal immigrant.”

“The AP Stylebook created its entry on ‘illegal immigrant’ in 2004, in response to renewed debate over border security and the enforcement of immigration laws after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,” AP’s deputy standards editor David Minthorn explained in an e-mail. “Together, the terms describe a person who resides in a country unlawfully by residency or citizenship requirements. Alternatives like undocumented worker, illegal alien or illegals lack precision or may have negative connotations. Illegal immigrant, on the other hand, is accurate and neutral for news stories.”

Laurence said the AP is simply “wrong” in its assessment.

“The Associated Press is wrong. Their stylebook is wrong,” he said. “It is not consistent with the Constitution.”

He further told TheDC that he hopes the AP changes its rule on the usage of the term in its next stylebook edition, and expects that, if the entire national SPJ adopts the Diversity Committee’s recommendations at next year’s annual convention, it will put enough pressure on the AP to do so.

Media Research Center columnist Alana Goodman, who wrote about SPJ’s new campaign earlier this month, told TheDC she doesn’t expect this campaign to be successful, and that it shouldn’t be seen as a representation of SPJ as a whole.

“It’s had very minimal impact on the group’s credibility — I don’t think many people have heard about this story,” Goodman said in an e-mail to TheDC. “Also, the opinions of the diversity committee don’t necessarily represent the opinions of SPJ as a whole. However, I think it’s unfortunate that the SPJ decided to highlight this particular argument in its monthly publication, unchallenged.”