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Editor's column: Word choice matters in reporting on immigration

Published March 23, 2012 1:47 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Words matter.

Nowhere is this more true than in the newspaper industry, where precise language is our most powerful tool.

That's why a discussion in our newsroom this past week centered on whether we should change a style rule we follow in writing about immigration to allow use of the term illegal immigrant instead of — or in addition to — the term undocumented immigrant.

Our rule defining use of the terms merited discussion for two reasons:

First, the Associated Press Stylebook, which The Salt Lake Tribune and most news organizations use, recently updated its rule to advise journalists to use illegal immigrant to "describe someone who has entered a country illegally or who resides in a country in violation of civil or criminal law." According to the AP rule, illegal alien is not an acceptable term and illegal and undocumented should not be used as nouns outside direct quotes.

The second reason for our discussion was that the terminology made headlines when the First United Methodist Church earlier this month passed a resolution directing members not to use illegal when describing undocumented immigrants in sermons, services and church publications. The Methodists are among those who believe describing undocumented immigrants as illegal is dehumanizing and insensitive.

In the end, we decided both terms are acceptable in The Tribune and at sltrib.com. Here's why: Both are precise language we believe accurately describes individuals' immigration status if they are in the United States — or any other country — illegally. It is incumbent on our reporters and editors to verify immigration status to the extent they are able before using either term, and — as always — to report on immigration issues accurately and fairly.

This style rule means we choose not to engage in the political debate raging over use of these terms.

We define illegal as the AP defines it.

We define undocumented as lacking a birth certificate, passport, visa, work permit or other document required to reside in the United States or another country legally.

We say nothing more with our use of these terms. We say nothing less.

We are neutral, as we must be to do our jobs well.

Other news organizations also have confronted this issue.

According to a Poynter Institute article, the Los Angeles Times allows use of both terms. The New York Times, the Fresno Bee and the San Antonio Express News are among those that — like the AP — use only illegal immigrant.

All of us who work in media make decisions such as this as a matter of course.

Should we use "pro-life" or "anti-abortion" to describe people opposed to abortion? The Tribune, following AP style, uses "anti-abortion" because the term is neutral and most precisely describes this group.

Should we use Mormon to describe members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Some readers argue we shouldn't, but Mormon is a commonly used and precise term, so we use it, along with Latter-day Saints, LDS faithful and other descriptions.

Language is dynamic, and how we use it is — and should be — constantly under review.

Our goal whenever we consider changing the way we use language is to be precise, concise and accurate in its use.

If you disagree with our decisions, we'll hear you out.

We're journalists. We love to talk about words.

They matter.

Lisa Carricaburu is assistant managing editor. Reach her at lisac@sltrib.com or on Twitter: @lcarricaburu