Thursday, April 28, 2011

Terminology in the Newsroom: Undocumented vs. Illegal

Katie Smith

When a student makes the decision to dedicate their life to the journalism profession they are bombarded by the rules and suggestions that have been passed on by others before them. Helpful hints of what to do, and wary warnings plague the journalist in their first few years on the job. While this is incredibly beneficial to a beginner in the field it can also be counterproductive. Journalism is one of the few careers that is constantly changing and refocusing on its mission: to truthfully and unbiasedly relay the news. So then, why is it that we hold on so tightly to the standard procedures that were used in newsrooms 50 years ago?

It is important to evaluate journalistic procedures, especially terminology, as often as possible. With the rapid social, technological and economic change our country faces today it is feasible that some of the things we did and said yesterday are offensive to our consumers today.

The terminology surrounding people who come to America without properly documenting their entrance is one of the most popular discussions we currently face. Are these people to be described as "illegal" or "undocumented?" Should they be called "immigrants" or "aliens?" Does it even matter what we, as journalists, call them?

In the article, Illegal Aliens Vs. Undocumented Workers it is argued that "the term illegal alien is not meant in a disparaging or dehumanizing way. The definition and use of the term 'illegal' is completely appropriate, since it is illegal for a person to enter or remain in the US without permission, as it is illegal for them to hold a job."

However the video below, presented by ColorLines and the Applied Research Center, shows that the use of the word "illegal" is spreading hate that targets specific groups of people. Their campaign to 'Drop the I-word' explains this side of the argument:

But does it even matter what journalists call people that come into our country in a way that we have decided is illegal? The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics says it does. The ethics code, that almost all journalists choose to follow, says that we should "avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status." So, what do we do?

According to an American Journalist Review article, linguist, Otto Santa Ana, urges that both terms, illegal and undocumented, are one-sided. Santa Ana supports the use of the term"unauthorized immigrant" because it doesn't mask a very serious issue behind a polite facade, but it also does not characterize these people as hard criminals.

So, I guess it's up to us, the bright future of journalism, to decide. Illegal? Undocumented? Unauthorized? What is the future of this terminology? While we all appreciate and respect the advice of those that have been in the business for years, it is our turn to make some decisions. It is my hope that we hold ourselves to the ethical standards set by those before us, but that we don't turn into coddling parents of the public by trying to please everyone.

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