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Friday, December 2, 2011
Diversity Toolbox

Goodbye, ‘I-word’; now what?

By Rebecca Aguilar and Leo Laurence

Change can be a good thing. SPJ delegates proved it at the convention in New Orleans when they passed a resolution recommending that journalists stop using the phrase “illegal alien.”

The “I-word” controversy gained wide national scrutiny in late 2010 and early 2011 after a Quill column by Leo Laurence caught the attention of Bill O’Reilly. Laurence urged reporters to stop using the phrases “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant.”

I applaud Laurence for what he’s done. Here’s a white guy who didn’t have to stick his neck out for immigrants, but he did. I don’t know how many times I hear that journalists are the “voice of the voiceless,” but often I’ve seen reporters afraid to use their “voice for change.”

They say change comes with sacrifice. You better believe it, but Laurence says he’d do it again, because it was the right thing to do.

NATIONAL CONVENTION ACTS

Laurence couldn’t make it to the convention where he was planning to lobby for the “I-word” resolution. Fortunately, a member of our Diversity Committee, Jeremy Steele, took on the role. Steele knew the Resolutions Committee had already voted against the proposed resolution, over concerns with the language. He decided to reword it.

Minutes before the resolution hit the convention floor, Steele and Diversity Committee Chairman Curtis Lawrence, along with SPJ President-elect Sonny Albarado, gathered to work on re-wording the resolution. I offered to help them since I was an SPJ Diversity Fellow, and I also had personal connection to the issue.

The most significant change to the resolution’s language was adding a new “whereas” clause citing the SPJ Code of Ethics.

Later in an email, Steele told the Diversity Committee: “The convention is an unpredictable place. It’s a great example of how policymaking is, indeed, akin to making sausage (the end result may be delightful, but the process is messy).”

Several voting delegates spoke for and against the revised resolution. It made Steele’s “heart skip a beat or two,” and that’s when he asked me to step up to the microphone.

Suddenly, I was staring into the eyes of more than 100 people. I told them about my decades of journalism experience, paused to take a deep breath and began to share.

“But, more importantly, I’m the daughter of undocumented workers. Every time you use the phrase ‘illegal alien,’ my mother — now a proud American citizen — you insult her.

“I love the SPJ and the (National Association of Hispanic Journalists), but I love being a proud daughter of an undocumented worker who became an American citizen.

“Every time you use those words, ‘aliens’ is an ugly word ... an ugly word, you insult my mother. You insult all other Latinos.”

I walked away wiping tears from my eyes. The revised resolution passed. Many delegates later told me they were touched by my personal story. (Read the full resolution here.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

As new president John Ensslin said on his blog: “My concern is not one of being politically correct as it (is) being precise and accurate.”

The final resolution encouraging reporters to stop using the phrase “illegal alien” is not about political correctness, or the immigration debate. For journalists, it will make our stories more ac-curate and consistent with our U.S. Constitution.

“When police arrest someone on a burglary charge, we don’t refer to them the next day as ‘illegal burglars.’ They are burglary suspects,” Ensslin wrote. (Read the full blog.

COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS

We encourage editors and news managers to sit down with their staffs and have a healthy discus-sion over avoiding the “I-word.”

• We urge editors and news managers to follow the convention’s resolution by using the phrase “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker,” rather than following the AP Stylebook, which still suggests using “illegal immigrant.”

• We also strongly recommend that journalists stop using the word “illegals,” and for the same reason: It’s also not accurate and is inconsistent with the Constitution. This is sup-ported by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which is concerned with the increasing use of pejorative terms like “illegals,” shorthand for “illegal aliens.” Like NAHJ, we believe the words “illegals” and “illegal aliens” dehumanize and criminalize a person, without the required court action.

Rebecca Aguilar is an SPJ Diversity Committee member and board member with Fort Worth Chapter and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Reach her at agui-lar.thereporter@yahoo.com. Leo Laurence, a Diversity Committee member, contributed to this column. Reach him at leopowerhere@msn.com.

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