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Bias and word choice

by on April 3, 2013

This afternoon, The Associated Press announced “illegal immigrant” would no longer be the preferred term of the stylebook for immigrants living in the country without documentation.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained the decision to Jim Romenesko.

“The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

Though seemingly minute, this is big. Illegal immigrant, the former preferred descriptor of the AP, describes someone, the person, as criminal. Changing the language to immigrating illegal shows that the person isn’t a crime, only the action of crossing the border.

Words are not created equal. Even synonyms vary greatly in connotation. Because of this, while writing copy, reporters need to ask themselves: Is this the best possible choice of word here? Is this the least biased way this idea could have been phrased?

Carroll said they considered a spectrum of options though ruled out undocumented immigrant.

“‘undocumented,’ despite ardent support from some quarters, because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence.)”

Additionally, Carroll addressed another change. The way people with mental illness are now described has modified. Carroll said,

“The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was ‘diagnosed with schizophrenia’ instead of schizophrenic, for example.”

This changes someone being referred to as a schizophrenic, to a person diagnosed with schizophrenia. This recognizes that a person is more than a diagnoses, something important for journalists to be cautious of while covering mental illness.



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  1. I think this is a very noble and significant move by the AP. There is so much discrimination towards both these groups and the language we use to talk about them can be blamed for some of it. When we start using more respectful terms, we recongnize immigrants and the mentally ill as people and do not write them off as lesser than us. I think if we change the way we identify these groups, we will see a difference in a way we treat them as well.

  2. Liz Sinclair permalink

    I agree. I think this, first off, is an interesting blog post. So often as writers, we may overlook our word choices when editing our material. Looking for misspelled words or other grammatical errors, we may not recognize that our choice of words could have an even greater impact than we may have foreseen. I believe this removal of the word illegal by the Associate Press was in fact needed. Immigrants throughout our history have been referred to as “illegal” and “aliens.” By changing the illegal to only in verb usage, we are not equivocating immigrants as the bad connotation of illegal but rather describing their actions, of living in a country without proper documentation, as illegal.

    Although a little off topic, I am immediately reminded of a chapter I just read in Writing as Craft and Magic by Carl Sessions Stepp. The author refers to journalists as translators. As journalists, we may understand and read the material from specific groups of people who have their own jargon, including doctors and technical writers. When writing a story including these specific peoples as sources, we are not to include their jargon verbatim but rather translate it in a way that is the most clear and politically correct so that audiences can thoroughly understand our work. It is important for us to recognize the power of our word choices and how a simple change in words can make an entire difference.

  3. I agree that this is a very interesting blog post, and a very significant and respectable decision on behalf of the AP. I have never really considered the implications of referring to someone as an “illegal immigrant” or a “schizophrenic” before, but I definitely see a problem with these terms now when I consider the AP’s motives for changing them. This change does raise the important issue of word choice in journalism. I do believe that every little word can change the tone of a story and every generalization of a person or a group of people can have strong implications on a story or an issue in general. There is obviously a negative connotation attached to the generalization of someone as an “illegal immigrant” or “mentally ill,” and I see eliminating the words we use to stigmatize people as a good first step in eliminating these stigmas. I agree that saying a person “immigrated to this country illegally” rather than characterizing them as an “illegal immigrant” recognizes the fact that there is much more to a person than the crime they committed when crossing the border, and that that one act does not define them, just as saying a person was “diagnosed with bipolar disorder” recognizes that that person’s diagnoses is just one part of that person. As a journalists, a writer, or just as a good and ethical person, I think it is very important to look at the loaded words we throw around frivolously every day without realizing how much they really do matter.

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