NY Times Drops “Illegals,” As Fox Continues To Cling To Slur

In a post on his blog yesterday, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, currently an op-ed columnist for the paper, answered readers who have repeatedly criticized him and the paper of record for their incessant use of derogatory term “illegals.” Keller shared a handful of emails from readers, including from one who noted that the term “reduces human beings to a status label, and a morally loaded one at that.”

The reader's email continued:

It reduces the essence of a person to an act of violation, an offense. When you use “illegals” as the object of a sentence it literally erases the human beings who the sentence is about and makes the grammatical object of the sentence an abstraction, a label of condemnation.

Keller was particularly criticized for using the term in his Monday column, which he did no less than four times. In defending himself to readers, he wrote:

Just to be clear, I used the word only to refer to people who are actually in this country illegally. I was careful not to apply it to families, which are often of mixed legal status. And I used it in a context where the subject was their legal status.

After consulting the paper's style book, which advised Times journalists to use “illegal immigrant ... rather than the sinister-sounding illegal alien,” Keller contacted the Times' “arbiter of style and taste” Phil Corbett who explained that " 'illegals' as a shorthand noun has an unnecessarily pejorative tone, and it is routinely used by the anti-immigration side." Corbett added: “I think it's wise to steer clear.”

Keller concluded:

Well, vigilant readers, the good news is, you seem to have gotten the style book updated. And I'll resist that particular shorthand in the future.

Indeed, the Associated Press Stylebook explicitly instructs journalists not to use “illegal or illegals.” In its entry for “illegal immigrant,” the AP Stylebook cautions journalists against shortening the phrase to exclude the word “immigrant.” Michele Salcedo, an AP political desk anchor and current president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists explained the problem to the Poynter Institute:

Salcedo ... doesn't agree with the AP's style. “Illegal immigrant,” she said, oversimplifies the complexities of immigration.

“Using the word 'illegal' to describe an immigrant puts journalists in the position of being judge and jury,” she said via email. “It casts all immigration cases as black and white: legal or illegal. That leaves little room for this most complicated law's nuances.”

There's a tendency to carelessly use the term “illegal” when reporting on immigration, Salcedo said: “In every other legal context, whether criminal or civil, journalists are scrupulously taught, and editors keep a close eye on copy, to make sure someone accused of a crime or violation isn't convicted in the story, that they have a right to the presumption of innocence,” she said. “The coverage of immigration is the exception to those journalistic standards.”

NAHJ uses “undocumented” instead of “illegal,” and has urged others to use it, too. Similarly, the Society of Professional Journalists voted earlier this fall to recommend that media outlets stop using the term “illegal alien” and re-evaluate “illegal immigrant.”

One news outlet which still clings to the pejorative shorthand is Fox News. On the day Keller posted his comment, Fox hosted conservative radio host Lars Larson to rail against “illegals” and “illegal aliens” as a silent Alisyn Camerota let the epithets fly by. Everyone from "straight news" anchors to show hosts uses the word on a weekly basis. Fox News also routinely affixes the slur to headlines, even changing the headlines to articles to include the word. The word is also used in purportedly neutral Fox News articles.

While Fox News' emphasis on using the word has not gone unnoticed, perhaps it's time the news network -- which is apparently on some kind of "course correction" from its “hard right turn” -- follow Keller's and the overall media's advice and stop skewing the public debate over immigration.