The fact that the Associated Press news agency decided to ban the term “illegal immigrant” last week is a big victory for fairness in journalism, but there are other terms used daily in the media that should be revised as well.
Before we get to them, let’s make it clear that we are talking about expressions that should be used in straight news stories, as opposed to opinion columns — such as this one — where journalists should enjoy a greater flexibility to play with words to express their personal feelings.
As we have been writing here for several years, the term “illegal immigrant” is unfair and demeaning, because no human being is “illegal.” A driver who speeds is not an “illegal driver,” nor is a person who doesn’t pay the rent an “illegal tenant.” At long last, the new AP Stylebook recognizes that there are illegal actions, not illegal people.
Even worse is the use of the word “illegals” as a noun, which dehumanizes undocumented immigrants and paints all of them as dangerous criminals. Fox News and other immigrant-allergic news outlets still use “illegals’’ all the time.
“There are other terms, such as “chain migration,’’ or “’anchor babies,’’ or “’the flood of immigrants,’’ that are used every day in the press, despite the fact that the number of undocumented immigrants has fallen in recent years,’’ says Kathryn Vargas, a spokeswoman for the National Immigration Forum advocacy group. “These terms are loaded with hostility, and take the human face out of the immigration debate.”
But there are other terms that are used daily in the media, such as “gun control,’’ that also deserve closer scrutiny.
When we in the media publish headlines about the “gun control” debate, we are indirectly buying the National Rifle Association (NRA) pro-gun lobbying group’s argument that all proposed gun regulations to reduce mass killings are efforts to violate the U.S. Constitution’s second amendment, which guarantees people’s right to bear arms.
Instead of talking about the “gun control” debate, we should be talking about the “gun violence” debate. Incidentally, the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, but it doesn’t say we have the right to have semi-automatic rifles.
Or take a much more common journalistic practice: identifying all presidents, including dictators who have not allowed a free election in decades, as “President,” or “leader.”
I have always wondered why we insist on describing Cuba’s dictator Gen. Raúl Castro, or North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, as the “Cuban leader,” or the “North Korean leader,” just like I never understood why we kept calling late Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet during his years in power as “the Chilean leader.”
There is no dictionary in the world that would not define these three characters as dictators. For the record, my Google dictionary defines “president” as “the elected head of a republican state,” and dictator as “a ruler with total power over a country.”
(I’ll tell you a little secret: many U.S. news organizations won’t call ruling despots as “dictators” until they die, because they don’t want their reporters to be denied visas to enter these totalitarian states.)
Which brings me to the mother of all contentious terms, which is not being questioned by virtually anybody in the United States, but has long generated a lot of resentment from Latin Americans and Canadians — the term “America.”
“America,’’ or “the Americas,’’ is the Western Hemisphere. When Columbus discovered the New World, his first stops were The Bahamas and Cuba, not Boston. In fact, the first known references to the term “America’’ referred to South America, in honor of explorer Americus Vespucius.
When I mentioned this to my friend Edward Wasserman, dean of the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, he laughed and recalled that his Spanish teacher in Argentina used to object even to his use of the term “norteamericano,’’ and urged him to call himself ’’estadounidense.”
“You are right, the term ’’American’’ has overtones of cultural arrogance,’’ Wasserman said. “We don’t even have a term for ‘estadounidense’ in English.”
My opinion: We should not move toward an overly politically correct journalistic lingo that ends up depriving most terms of much of their meaning (I still prefer “handyman” or “handywoman’’ to “handyperson.’’) But language defines the message, and language is an evolving phenomenon.
It was about time that the AP — where I worked for several years — made the change. I don’t think I will see the AP replacing “America’’ with “the United States,’’ or “USA,’’ in my lifetime, but I would be content if I see it at least moving from “gun control’’ to “gun violence’’ in the near future.