October 22, 2012

The words we use matter. They can help re-frame issues and change debates. Whether it’s changing discussions about global warming to those about climate change. Talking about a death tax instead of an estate tax. Or promoting stronger environmental standards instead of increased government regulation.  Language plays a critical role in how we all perceive issues and form opinions.


Given this, we’ve been watching with particular interest the efforts of immigrant rights groups to get the Associated Press and others to end the use of the term “illegal immigrants” in their reporting.


The activists behind the “Drop the I-Word” campaign argue the phrase is “legally inaccurate,” “politically loaded” and “dehumanizing [to] the people it is used to describe. Perhaps more to the point, they claim its use has helped deny the country a “truthful, respectful debate on immigration.”


The AP, the New York Times and others have been, to date, unmoved. They explain that the term just calls these immigrants what they are: people who are here illegally.  (As the Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan explained, the term “gets its job done.”)  They’ve also pointed out that the proposed alternatives, such as “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants,” confuse rather than clarify the issue. They’re trying to cast themselves in a role we often ask the media to play: that of neutral observer.


The trouble is, this isn’t honest.  When it comes to such a politically charged issue, there are no neutral terms.  The way we talk about a contentious issue implies a choice. To make editorial decisions about words is to agree to focus the debate here instead of there.


Determining what words to use requires balancing multiple factors.  One of those factors is most certainly accuracy, but another has to be considering the associations and triggers that a particular word or phrase carries. Because all words are emotional triggers. In a debate like this, even words chosen to carefully avoid the legal question would anger those who want this to be a legal issue.


Rightfully or wrongly the term “illegal immigrant” carries considerable rhetorical baggage. It’s closely connected to coarser terms like “illegals” and “illegal aliens,” both of which the AP and the New York Times have stressed they will not use.  It focuses the debate on individuals’ status as lawbreakers. Using the term “undocumented workers” would focus the debate on their status as having not completed paperwork. “Unauthorized workers” would frame this as a government allowance issue. All carry very specific implications, which organizations and individuals must choose among.


None of this means the term shouldn’t be used – the baggage it carries is only one factor that has to be weighed against others. But it does mean that these publications have an obligation to consider and explain, fully, why they decided to keep using it. Accuracy alone dodges the central question.

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