By Andrea Plaid
You would think that 70,000 people asking for the exact same thing would change someone’s mind, right?
Not if you’re the New York Times.
On April 23, members of Applied Research Center’s Drop The I-Word (DTIW) Campaign (in full disclosure: I work as the campaign’s new manager), its partners, and its supporters gathered at the newspaper’s headquarters in Times Square with the 70,000-strong petition asking the Grey Lady to get with the times and eliminate using the word “illegals” and “illegal immigrant(s)” in its reporting of undocumented immigrants. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, co-founder of partnering organization Define American, and Fernando Chavez, son of the late Cesar Chavez, delivered the petition that was started by Chavez’s widow, Helen, at MoveOn.org (another DTIW partner). The petition’s delivery took place on the 20th anniversary of the social-justice activist’s death.
Video activist Jay Smooth captured the action and explains the context of the campaign:
And this is how the New York Times responded after Tuesday’s action:
On Tuesday, The New York Times updated its policies on how it uses the phrase “illegal immigrant” in its coverage. The newspaper did not go as far as The Associated Press, and it will continue to allow the phrase to be used for “someone who enters, lives in or works in the United States without proper legal authorization.” But it encourages reporters and editors to “consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions.”
Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, who oversees the Times’ style manual, made the announcement on Tuesday shortly after a group staged a protest in front of The New York Times headquarters and delivered more than 70,000 signatures to Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The Times, asking her to end the use of the phrase.
Mr. Corbett said in a statement that editors had spent months deliberating the updated style change. He said he shared these changes “with key reporters and editors over the last couple of weeks.” He said he recognized how sensitive this issue is for readers. The changes announced by Mr. Corbett to the stylebook suggested caution when looking for alternatives to “illegal immigrant.”
“‘Unauthorized’ is also an acceptable description, though it has a bureaucratic tone,” Mr. Corbett said. ” ‘Undocumented’ is the term preferred by many immigrants and their advocates, but it has a flavor of euphemism and should be approached with caution outside quotations.” The stylebook also calls for special care to be taken with those who have a complicated or shifting status, like those brought to the United States as children.
“Advocates on one side of this political debate have called on news organizations to use only the terms they prefer,” Mr. Corbett said. “But we have to make those decisions for journalistic reasons alone, based on what we think best informs our readers on this important topic.” He added: “It’s not our job to take sides.”
However, by continuing to use the i-word, the newspaper is taking sides–the wrong side. Not cool, NYT. Not cool. At. All.
UNITY, the journalist coalition consisting of the Asian American Journalists Association, the Native American Journalists Association, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, feels the same way:
“As journalists and as members of minority groups, we understand better than most people the power of words to degrade and dehumanize those who are considered undesirable, and we urge the Times’ editors to rethink their latest decision regarding the loaded word ‘illegal,’ ” said UNITY President Tom Arviso, Jr.
While we appreciate the Times’ desire to use language that is neutral and unbiased, we strongly believe that using the word “illegal” as an adjective or a noun absolutely takes sides in the immigration debate — by describing people only in terms of their immigration status and ability to live and work in the United States.
This is especially troubling coming from one of the world’s most respected and influential media companies — and in light of the fact that many of these immigrants are ethnic and racial minorities who remain vastly underrepresented in America’s newsrooms.
We urge The New York Times and other media organizations to consider the recommendations of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) to use the word “illegal” only to describe actions, not human beings. Or better yet, confine the word “illegal” to direct quotations, and drop the “I” word entirely.
If you want to urge the Times to get with the times and stop using the i-word–and you have a Twitter account–please cut, paste, and send out this tweet:
.@nytimes drop the i-word completely. #droptheiword