Associated Press (AP): Illegal vs. Undocumented Immigrant

A stack of newspapersA topic of disgust (and discussion) in conservative circles lately is the new Associated Press (AP) guidelines on how news sources should refer to those who have immigrated illegally. As a student of journalism, this is an issue I found troubling. How can I report the truth if I’m being told to censor the truth?

Immigrating Illegally

Someone who has immigrated illegally is not just “undocumented”, they are a criminal. I know that’s not “politically” (or liberally?) correct, but when you break the law, you are a lawbreaker. If you immigrated to the United States without following our laws you are a criminal.

AP, MLA, APA, and Chicago; Oh My!

Well, as a subscriber to the AP Stylebook, I decided to actually look it up and see for myself what it had to say. For those not familiar with the field of journalism and news reporting, the AP Stylebook is basically the primary book of rules and guidelines for formatting news stories. This is just like academic and literature styles such as the Modern Language Association (MLA) format, American Psychological Association (APA) style, and the Chicago Style–just to name a few.

According to Wikipedia,

Reporters, editors and others use the AP Stylebook as a guide for grammar, punctuation and principles and practices of reporting. Although some publications use a different style guide, the AP Stylebook is considered a newspaper industry standard and is also used by broadcasters, magazines and public relations firms. It includes an A-to-Z listing of guides to capitalization, abbreviation, spelling, numerals and usage.

And according, to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL), the purpose of the AP Stylebook as follows:

The content of newspapers and other mass media is typically the result of many different writers and editors working together. AP style provides consistent guidelines for such publications in terms of grammar, spelling, punctuation and language usage. Some guiding principles behind AP style are:

  • Consistency
  • Clarity
  • Accuracy
  • Brevity

AP style also aims to avoid stereotypes and unintentionally offensive language.

Neutral News

Now that last line there is probably a bit unnerving to some, but hear me out. The role of the journalist is to–at least in theory–be a completely neutral source of information. Newspapers are not suppose to be making judgements or expressing opinion (that’s my job ). Their job is to present the information and let the reader decide. Many people would be amazed at how very subtle words, phrases, and sentences are actually matters of opinion, evaluation, and judgement.

This means that the AP Style looks to avoid any of those things which might undermine the integrity of journalism as a neutral source. If you make a judgement on a person, you have stepped outside of fact reporting–a neutral observer–and are now making opinion.

What AP Has To Say For Itself

Before I answer some rebuttals and criticisms of this, let’s take a look at what the AP Stylebook actually has to say about illegal immigration:

illegal immigration
  • Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law.
  • Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.
  • Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.
  • Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.
  • Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.
  • Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?
  • People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally.
  • For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.

My Opinion

First, let me stress that on this website, I am not acting as a journalist. I’m acting as an opinion writer. I have never claimed to be anything else while writing for this website. I created this website specifically so I could express my opinion. I follow journalistic behaviors–finding credible information, reporting on it, bringing awareness, challenging policy, etc–but I never claim to be a neutral observer. My writing here is very biased. Being biased is not automatically a bad thing. However, in the world of newswriting it is always a bad thing.

I understand the concern that it seems the AP is trying to undermine the significance of a person being here illegally. But, looking at the stylebook as it appears to me now, the AP is not denying the person has broken a law, but does not want to label a human being as “illegal”. The person isn’t illegal, their presence here is. Which is why they specifically state:

Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

Even in regards to murderers we do not refer to as “illegal killers” or thieves as “illegal customers”. We’d refer to them as a murderer, a thief, or someone who committed a crime.

In Conclusion

I think a careful eye should be kept on how the media chooses to handle this, but I don’t think it’s immediate cause for concern. Contrary to popular belief, all news sources are not liberally biased. Although most TV Media sources ARE liberally slanted, most newspapers are actually the opposite. The problem lies in that nowadays, the majority of Americans get their news from either the television or from websites ran by television news media.

Immigration OfficeI also want to stress how important it is for being to do their research into the actual facts and caveats of a situation. Making judgements about areas of expertise that are not your own are dangerous. The fact that many conservatives are reacting in outrage to a handful of images on Facebook is bad. Someone will come along with specific facts and those regurgitating the information without having personally researched it will look ignorant.

Many situations are far more complex than “Conservative and Liberal”. We are doing ourselves a disservice by thinking in black and white. We will not convince people by screaming irately at the top of our lungs. Instead, we need to be controlled and educated about the problems facing us. Keep that in mind.

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