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The Associated Press’ continued sanction of offensive term to Latinos underscores disconnect with Hispanic readers

LatinaLista — The Associated Press (AP) headline was meant to startle not denigrate someone. After all, it was about a young college student body president who had grown up living in the United States illegally since he was three-years-old, though he only found out about it a few years ago.


But the headline insinuated a far more malicious scenario than what existed. The headline read: “Student body president in CA is illegal immigrant.”

The term “illegal immigrant” is one that has been widely denounced by Hispanic groups as offensive and demeaning. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) has even officially denounced the term saying, “Using the word in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed.”

NAHJ went further and called on “the media to never use ‘illegals’ in headlines.”

Yet the AP, always looked upon as the guardian and ultimate authority on newspaper writing style, refuses to acknowledge that maybe a group other than itself can deem a particular term inappropriate for news usage — especially a group that is offended by that term.

It wouldn’t be so bad if only the AP used the term but because many in the industry follow its lead like sheep in a pack, they also use the term when referring to undocumented immigrants. In speaking with a few editors at different newspapers about their usage of the term, they have replied that they use it because it is “sanctioned” by the AP.

If that wasn’t bad enough, an article in The Fresno Bee revealed that their use of the term “illegal immigrant” in a recent immigration series they were running in the paper had resulted in such an outcry from their readers that there have been calls to boycott the paper and a Facebook page created calling for the boycott because of the term’s usage.

And it’s not just the nation’s community newspapers that follow the AP’s lead. Every college newspaper in their efforts to be professional news organizations follow the AP Stylebook. It is their Bible when it comes to news style.

Knowing how the Latino community feels, in particularly what NAHJ issued in regard to using the term, the AP e-mailed the following statement to Latina Lista when asked why they insisted on using the term.

David Minthorn, deputy standards editor for the AP in New York, says “illegal immigrant” is accurate and neutral for news stories. An immigrant is someone who comes into a country to settle, and illegal means a violation of the law. Alternatives like “undocumented worker,” “illegal alien” or “illegals” lack precision or may have negative connotations.

Maybe in its New York offices, far away from regions like the Southwest or California or places with a high population of Latinos, does the AP consider “illegal immigrant” a neutral term but obviously a good number of readers outside the Big Apple don’t agree.

In this day and age, with an evolving demographic that is well on its way to becoming a majority, it’s surprising that the AP should be so disconnected from the readers they purportedly serve.

Or maybe the real fault lies with the local newspapers themselves. The fact that they would blindly follow the ignorant lead of an organization that has taken it upon itself to deem what is offensive to Latino readers underscores how these newspapers still don’t understand how to respond to their own readers in this new era of news consumption.

A quick review of other news orgs that picked up the AP story with its same headline was disheartening. It appeared on several sites, even CNN. In fact, the reporter who covered the story and used the term “illegal immigrant” in the CNN headline was a NAHJ chapter president.

It wasn’t until I saw the article on the Miami Herald website that I finally felt there was at least one mainstream media entity that knew their readers.

In republishing the AP story, the Miami Herald editors had retitled it to read: “Student body president in CA is undocumented migrant”.

Much less offensive to Latino readers and far more accurate than labeling this young political science major “illegal.”


(Update: In response to an e-mail sent by Latina Lista to the Miami Herald asking their reasoning for not using the term “illegal immigrant,” Aminda “Mindy” Marquez Gonzalez, Miami Herald’s Executive Editor, wrote:

We basically adopted the guidelines of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists on this front. The consensus here was that the term frequently is wrong. We often don’t know if someone is here illegally since so many immigrants actually do enter this country legally and then overstay their visas.
“Undocumented migrant” is more neutral and more accurate while conveying the same status. We sometimes run into difficulties on headlines because it’s so long, but by and large we always try to use the more neutral term.

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