Community news outlets should use inclusive language when covering immigration

A recent study by the nonprofit media and culture group Define American and the MIT Center for Civic Media found that major newspapers have adopted President Trump’s rhetoric for immigration, using language and labels like “illegal immigrant” to describe people working or residing in the United States without a visa or permit.

The New York Times and The Washington Post both used what the study’s authors described as “dehumanizing” language in stories on immigration. The other two papers singled out in the study, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, used the language less in their reporting.

A border wall separates El Paso, Texas, from the Rio Grande and the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez. (Photo by Jonathan McIntosh via Flickr)

The study’s author, Ethan Zuckerman, told the Intercept that the LA Times seemed to have “made conscious newsroom choices that they don’t want to normalize this language, even by putting it in quotes.”

The study also found that the major papers frequently cited a far-right, anti-immigration group without disclosing its ties to the Trump Administration. 

It would be easy enough to politicize the study and its findings. After all, our choice of language to describe immigrants is often viewed as a marker of our politics, which is why the study noted that in many cases news organizations put terms such as “illegal immigrant” in quotations. 

In 2013, AP discouraged the use of “illegal” to refer to a person. It advised that illegal should be used only to describe an action and even then, reporters should take care to describe how someone entered the country. In a blog post explaining the change, AP’s then executive editor Kathleen Carroll wrote that “while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.”

For example, AP discourages the use of “undocumented” because immigrants typically have documents, just not the correct ones. To avoid, “illegal,” newspapers sometimes still use “undocumented,” as many Iowa publications did in reporting on the murder of college student Mollie Tibbetts in 2018.

The study’s findings are useful for us in community journalism for the very reason we often lament when “big media” attempt to label our part of America. 

At the community level, it is our charge to adopt clear policy for how we will talk to and about each other. 

This doesn’t have to be a political decision. Nor should it be. 

We need every single one of our readers and viewers to survive the disruption within our industry. We can’t afford to take sides or to isolate ourselves. We can’t afford to follow The Washington Post or the New York Times on this issue. I’m pretty confident they will survive. I’m less confident that our smallest newspapers and radio stations will.

For that reason, we must decide, as the Southern Illinoisan did, in covering one immigrant’s story in 2018, to be purposeful with language, to see each other as members of the same community. That’s what Southern Illinoisan reporter Molly Parker did in writing the story of a West Frankfurt family whose father had entered the country illegally. 

Our readers may see this as just another attempt to be “politically correct.” We can and should push back against that accusation. By making a conscious decision as the LA Times did, we also are simply doing what community journalism always has done, which is to put community first and to make every single person count.

(Author’s note: I was a staff writer at The Washington Post during the same time that Define American co-founder and chief executive Jose Antonio Vargas was also a reporter at the paper.)

This story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner. 

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