To be ‘illegal’ or not to be: That is the modern newsroom question
Illegal: It has become the dreaded “I-word” at many news organizations.
Much of the press has shunned the terms “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” to describe Ingmar Guandique, recently charged by police and federal prosecutors in the 2001 slaying of Washington intern Chandra Levy.
The designation of Guandique — who entered the U.S. illegally in 2000, was convicted of two nonfatal attacks on women and incarcerated — has reignited a debate over whether a person’s immigration status is relevant to the story. Journalists also are debating whether the words “illegal” and “immigrant” are too loaded to use in an already emotionally charged story. And maybe even racist.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists has long cautioned journalists against using the word “illegal” in copy and headlines. The practice is “dehumanizing” and “stereotypes undocumented people who are in the United States as having committed a crime,” said Joseph Torres, the group’s president.
That has not prevented Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly from repeatedly calling Guandique an “illegal alien,” though Fox used plain old “Sal- vadoran immigrant” in its news coverage. Guandique has been called “Salvadoran immigrant,” “incarcerated felon,” “suspect” and “jailed attacker” in assorted accounts.
“Too many journalists don’t want to provide ammunition to those who want stricter immigration laws, so avoid connecting illegal immigrants to evidence which will bolster the argument that illegals cause harm,” said Brent Baker of the Media Research Center.
“So, when police charge an illegal immigrant with murdering Chandra Levy, reporters for CBS, CNN and AP benignly describe him as a ‘Salvadoran immigrant’ or as simply ‘a laborer from El Salvador,’ ” Mr. Baker said.
USA Today, the Washington Examiner and The Washington Times, however, referred to Guandique as an “illegal immigrant.”
“We aspire to give our readers as much accurate and relevant information as possible. Ingmar Guandique’s immigration status and his entire criminal history fell within our definition of reporting as near as possible the whole truth. We saw no reason to censor ourselves or deny information to our readers,” said Michael Hedges, managing editor of the Examiner.
“The suggestion that immigra- tion status somehow is irrelevant or should be treated like race in a crime story seems flawed. Being white or black or Hispanic or Asian isn’t a crime. Entering the country illegally is,” said John Solomon, executive editor of The Times.
“If a suspect entered the country illegally and then committed a crime, as is alleged in the Levy case, it is relevant information to the reader. If the illegal immigrant hadn’t gotten into the country, he or she might not have been in a position to commit the crime,” Mr. Solomon said.
The Washington Post, which has produced extensive coverage of the case in the past year, often opted for the term “Salvadoran day laborer,” though the paper does not forbid its journalists from designating immigration status.
“We don’t have any such policy. Our view is that any reference to someone’s immigration status, employment, race, ethnicity, nationality or other characteristic should be relevant, and add context and understanding for readers. We are aware of the debate about whether describing the Chandra Levy suspect as an ‘illegal immigrant’ is scaremongering, and we’ve discussed it and believe we’ve stuck to our principle,” said editorial spokeswoman Kris Coratti.
Although Guandique entered the country illegally, he was eligible for “temporary protected status” granted by President Bush to Salvadorans who had been in the U.S. before February 2001. Guandique had filed for that status and received authorization to reside and work in the U.S. while his application was pending. His request ultimately was denied.
“This is a very complicated matter. The goal is to make sure that journalists are specific and precise in the use of words like ‘illegal,’ ‘immigrant’ and ‘undocu- mented.’ It gets complex because different news organizations have different policies, and journalists themselves interpret those policies,” said Robert Steele, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute.
“There is a widespread and I believe logical argument that the broad use of certain terms in disrespectful. The press should be particularly cautious and conservative in our use of the term ‘alien.’ It should only be used when referring to certain specific laws,” he added.
“Our style is to use ‘illegal immigrant,’ rather than ‘undocumented worker’ or ‘illegal alien,’ for those who have entered the country illegally,” said Darrell Christian, editor of the Associated Press stylebook.
“Based on Webster´s definitions, ‘immigrant’ is a broader term. ‘Alien’ is a resident who beats political allegiance to another country; ‘immigrant’ is someone who comes to another country to settle, whether legally or illegally. Not all non-U.S. citizens living in the United States would be considered workers, undocumented or not,” Mr. Christian said.
The most recent AP coverage of the Levy case did not examine the legality of Guandique’s immigration status, and refers to him as a “Salvadoran immigrant,” “inmate” and “convict.”
The jailed laborer in question: Ingmar Guandique