Losing “Loose Language” in Immigration Reporting

By Ian Kullgren

In 2013, the Associated Press made a landmark change to its style guidelines: journalists no longer should use the phrase “illegal immigrant,” trading it for “undocumented immigrant.” In a blog post, the AP explained that the switch was part of a broader shift away from all-defining labels.

The new edict suggested—implicitly if not explicitly—that describing people as “illegal” detracts from their individual struggles and contributes to dehumanization. At the same time, the AP acknowledged its solution was an imperfect one. “Is this the best way to describe someone in a country without permission? We believe that it is for now,” wrote Paul Colford, the AP’s vice president of media relations. “We also believe more evolution is likely down the road.”

Five years later, the lexicon for journalists reporting on immigration remains largely unevolved. We still use the same general set of nouns and adjectives to describe people who come to the United States illegally: Dreamer, refugee, migrant, and unaccompanied minor, to name a few. Meanwhile, the debate over immigration has changed significantly—becoming more polarized, dividing the public and paralyzing Congress. At this moment in history, journalists are covering an administration that describes immigrants—legal and illegal—with incendiary and sometimes racist language.

“Around the world, media coverage is often politically led with journalists following an agenda dominated by loose language and talk of invasion and swarms,” Aidan White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network, wrote in a 2015 report on immigration coverage.  “But at other moments the story is laced with humanity, empathy and a focus on the suffering of those involved.”

How do journalists navigate this minefield? It’s a question I ask myself regularly, being part of a team that covers labor and immigration issues in Washington. How do we balance informing readers about the immigration debate and its consequences without mindlessly parroting the terms that politicians use? And, how do we balance the mission of eliciting empathy among readers without putting our thumb on the scale for one side or another? Vocabulary is central to all of these questions.

One of the stickiest words journalists use is “Dreamer.” The term comes from the DREAM Act, legislation introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in 2001 to provide a “pathway to citizenship”—another buzzy cliché that politicians use—to people who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Several versions of the bill have been introduced since. None have passed.

Describing young, undocumented immigrants as “Dreamers” can be problematic for some journalists due it its partisan implication. “It does carry political tones at the end of the day,” said Perla Trevizo, an immigration reporter at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, Arizona. “It gives the connotation of a pro-immigration stance.”  

Usage varies across cultures and newsrooms. Compared to Mexican media, American media typically are more careful with how they use the “Dreamer” moniker, said Martha Pskowski, a Mexico City-based freelancer who has written for the Guardian, CityLab and others. “Any young immigrant is seen as a Dreamer,” Pskowski said of the standard in Mexican media. “It’s become this catch-all.”

In Mexico, Pskowski said, part of the imprecision is due to the overrepresentation of people with wealthier backgrounds in the media. Most don’t have experience with a family member emigrating to the U.S., and therefore have different life experiences from most Mexican families. “It reflects who is in the Mexican media,” she said.

American media, by contrast, stick to a stricter definition. Trevizo, for example, only uses “Dreamer” to refer to people within the parameters of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA, instituted by President Barack Obama and canceled this year by President Donald Trump. (DACA recipients, for the most part, fall under the category of the Dream Act, were it ever to pass.)

The Dreamer question speaks to a broader problem of journalists adopting legislative language in their stories. During the Obama administration, reporters struggled with what to call the president’s health care bill. At first, they used the name itself: The Affordable Care Act. But the name is unambiguously slanted toward Democrats who wrote it. Reporters avoided using “Obamacare”—the pejorative term assigned by tea party Republicans. As an intern at a local paper in 2012, I distinctly remember being scolded for writing “Obamacare” in a story.” It was a Catch-22 between two loaded names.  That all changed just a few months later, when Obama himself embraced “Obamacare.” Almost instantly, the controversy lifted, and reporters began using it freely.

When it comes to immigration, Trevizo and others in her shoes are trying more than ever to avoid labels in favor of more detailed descriptions. In some cases, it requires a close adherence to legal definitions. Refugees, under the law, are people seeking asylum at a legal point of entry, and Trevizo will only use the word to describe someone who meets those criteria. When someone crosses the border at a non-designated entry point but was driven to the U.S. by violence in his or her home country, Trevizo favors “emigrant.”

It’s essential to explain why people are coming to the U.S. whenever possible, Trevizo said. A journalist’s mission is to inform readers about the complexities, nuances, and parameters of the issues they write about—to lay the foundation for an educated debate. In that sense, she said, description is more accurate than any label.

It’s not just individual reporters making the change. In 2013, the Los Angeles Times overhauled its standards for writing about immigration (prior to 1995, the announcement noted, “illegal alien” was an acceptable phrase). The new guidelines, by contrast, encourage reporters to avoid labels altogether. “‘Illegal immigrants’ is overly broad and does not accurately apply in every situation,” the Times’ standards committee wrote in a memo to staff. “The alternative suggested by the 1995 guidelines, ‘undocumented immigrants,’ similarly falls short of our goal of precision. It is also untrue in many cases, as with immigrants who possess passports or other documentation but lack valid visas.”

Trevizo, who spent a year reporting in Germany, noted that journalists there use a looser definition of refugee—mostly because many Syrian immigrants they write about are coming directly from a war zone. German reporters were also quicker to note a person’s country of origin, especially in war situations, she said.

In the U.S., she said, immigration vocabulary should be a more frequent topic of discussion in newsrooms—especially now that it has returned to the forefront of the national dialogue. “These are conversations that need to happen more in newsroom,” Trevizo said. “Especially now that more people who don’t often cover immigration full time are covering it.”

















Leave a Reply