Throughout the last 24 hours, I have received several inquiries about the use of the term “undocumented” — in place of “illegal” — to describe a subgroup of immigrants in the U.S. in a story about a visit earlier this week from immigration activist and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. Concerns range from journalistic curiosity to angry vitriol. I have decided I should address these concerns to avoid any confusion about this newspaper’s policy.
Currently, “The Associated Press Stylebook” specifies that the appropriate journalistic term for an immigrant who enters this country outside of legal conditions is “illegal.” The Badger Herald follows “The AP Stylebook,” like many news organizations throughout the nation. However, we also realize AP Style rules can be antiquated at times, and this is why editors update the guide on an annual basis. The AP still has not updated this style recommendation despite mounting political pressure to do so.
Because we are a student newspaper that hopes to represent the interests of a wide variety of student and social groups at the University of Wisconsin while simultaneously representing the future of journalism, we have decided to stray from AP Style in this case and follow The News Watch Diversity Style Guide. Last year’s editor-in-chief, Signe Brewster, implemented this guide, and I believe it is in the best interests of the newspaper to continue to follow it.
Some of our readers might be offended and perceive this decision as another instance of media political correctness. We resent this description. As practicing journalists, we have a responsibility to adjust to journalistic norms and anticipate changes in ethics if necessary. I am convinced the term “illegal immigrant” suggests a subjective and judgmental approach to reporting that no newsroom would tolerate.
The Herald has been at the forefront of free speech debates for more than 40 years, and some may see this as an inappropriate action considering that history. But we are primarily a journalistic operation that abides by a set of professional standards. I consider the use of the term “illegal” unnecessarily alienating and objectively unfair to a core social group that reads our newspaper, and therefore we will continue to avoid it.