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Once again it’s just me on the Usage Panel, but I’ve got another interesting issue to address, and lots of others have written about it, so I will consider my post as participation in an internet-wide “panel.” The question is what noun-phrases media organizations should use when identifying people who reside in or enter the U.S. in violation of U.S. immigration laws.

“Illegal aliens” and “illegals” are two answers that can be dispensed with pretty easily. When used in journalism, the legal term “aliens” suggests an exaggerated sense of strangeness, and the connotation with martians is unavoidable. Although it’s relatively rare to find uses of “illegal aliens” in major news organizations (cable news, as always, excepted), except in quotes, a quick Google news search found numerous examples from local news organizations. “Illegals” dehumanizes, defining a diverse group of people by one (negative) characteristic by employing the reductive practice of noun-ifying an adjective. In a 2006 press release addressing immigration terminology, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists states that “using [‘illegals’] in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed.” “Illegals” is increasingly unusual even in headlines (where more accurate and ethical, but longer, phrases are sometimes eschewed for space considerations), though the AP seems to have few scruples about using the word, in headlines, the body of a story, or both.  I don’t know how much control publications that use AP stories have over style issues like that, but it would be interesting to know to what extent they are allowed to impose their own style guildelines.

The interesting question for me is whether “illegal immigrant” is an ethical/accurate way to refer to people who enter or reside in the country illegally. It is by far the most common way of describing this group of people in journalism, the reason given usually being that it provides the most direct and truthful description. I’ve encountered a lot of compelling arguments against using this term, though. The first is that a substantial minority (about 40%, according to the most often quoted numbers) of those residing in the country illegally didn’t actually immigrate illegally, but overstayed their visas, and the term “illegal immigrant” obscures that group. Also, as I understand it, the charges against people who enter or live in the U.S. illegally are primarily (perhaps all? any lawyers out there who can help me?) civil, not criminal. And though “illegal” is still technically accurate, the word does suggest criminality to my mind. The main argument against “illegal immigrants” by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is that “the term criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States without federal documents.” Ted Vaden, in a North Carolina News and Observer column, offers this distinction: “Illegal may be used to describe how people got here — “immigrants who are in the country illegally” — but not to describe the people themselves — “illegal immigrants.” ”

But if “illegal immigrants” is problematic, what term should replace it? “Undocumented immigrant” and “undocumented worker” are often raised as more humanizing alternatives. Although “immigrants” is an imperfect option for the noun, I think “worker” is even less accurate and I can’t think of a third option. “Undocumented workers” is a useful phrase only when the employment status of the people being described is relevant to the story. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense as a replacement for “immigrants.” The primary argument against “undocumented”—made in both the Washington Post and the New York Times stylebooks—is that it is a euphemism. According to the  Post stylebook (as quoted by then-Ombudsman Deborah Howell in an interesting column), “When used to describe immigrants, [‘undocumented’] is a euphemism that obscures an important fact — that they are in this country illegally.” In an October 2007 New York Times editorial observer column in which Lawrence Downes assesses several possible labels for people who enter or reside in the country illegally, he writes, “Someone who sneaked over the border and faked a Social Security number has little right to say: “Oops, I’m undocumented. I’m sure I have my papers here somewhere.” ”

Downes  suggests “unauthorized immigrants,” which strikes me as an accurate description that avoids many of the pitfalls of both “illegal” and “undocumented.” (The San Antonio Express-News apparently uses “unauthorized,” and the term is also discussed in this thoughtful post about the labeling issue by writer Daniel Hernandez at his blog Intersections.) I like how “unauthorized” doesn’t simply define a group of people by their status under U.S. law, but gives some shape to the institution that would bar them from entry or residence. It also avoids the problem of referring to immigrants who possess faked documents as “undocumented.” I think I’ll make the switch to “unauthorized immigrant” in my own writing—when a short label is necessary—unless anyone can suggest a better option in the comments section.

But maybe more important than the choice of which shorthand to choose is the fact that any shorthand used to label a large and diverse group of people is bound to obscure some truths. Aly Colon makes that point eloquently in a Poynter Online “Diversity at Work” blog post:

As a journalist who has written about and edited many stories involving diverse issues and people from different backgrounds, my inclination is to avoid labels as much as possible. Try to describe as accurately as you can the people you are covering. The more specific, the better. What we, as journalists, think we save by using a label and fewer words, we more than make up for in confusion, bias, prejudice and distortion. Labels limit us. And they limit the reality we see.


[This post is the first installment of what I hope will become a regular feature. I’ll pick a specific issue that presents journalists with descriptive problems and discuss (ideally with others) the most ethical way for them to articulate it. The idea will be to address usage questions that are too specific or too sensitive for media style guides to address, or for which the style guides offer unsatisfactory prescriptions. I’m going to call it “The Usage Panel,” partly to bolster my hope that in the future there will be more than one panelist, but mostly because I would like for it to be an ethics- and accuracy-focused media analog to the practical usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Suggestions for future Usage Panel topics are welcome!]

During the March upsurge in violence in and around Basra, a lot of the print publications that I see regularly used “Shiite-on-Shiite” as an adjective to describe the fighting and to distinguish it from the violence between Shiite and Sunni factions that has been more characteristic of the civil war in Iraq. It struck me as an appropriate topic for the first Usage Panel because it was so pervasive and raised some questions about how to describe ethnic and religious violence.

The expression recalls “black-on-black,” an adjective that appeared regularly in 1980’s reports of violence in South Africa that was not between black anti-Apartheid and white pro-Apartheid forces. The phrase still appears in U.S. newspapers, but almost always to describe either violence in urban black neighborhoods in the U.S. or discrimination against black Americans perpetrated by black Americans. (The expression “black-on-black violence” is specifically proscribed by the Guardian Style Guide, but not addressed by the NYT or AP stylebooks or by the Chicago Manual of Style).

Like the earlier usage of “black-on-black,” “Shiite-on-Shiite” is used to point out a way in which the violence being described defies the audience’s expectations. In South Africa in the 1980s, we expected violence to be racially motivated, and in Iraq now we expect violence that does not involve foreign forces to be between Shiite and Sunni groups.

I think that my primary hesitation about both expressions is that they present an uncomplicated understanding of the state of being “Shiite” or “black.” To use “Shiite-on-Shiite” as the primary descriptor of a violent incident suggests that it is, above other notable features of the incident, surprising that someone who identifies as Shiite would hurt someone else who identifies as Shiite. There’s a suggestion of “unnatural,” almost incestuous, betrayal in the construction. “Shiite-on-Shiite” and “black-on-black” encourage an inaccurate lumping of many, many individuals, political parties, ethnic groups, organizations and motivations into monolithic groups.

I fully accept that it was important—perhaps of primary importance—in all of the stories where I noticed the usage to explain that the violence occurring was between opposing Shiite groups. But the expression “Shiite-on-Shiite violence” evokes a simplistic understanding of “Shiiteness” that seems even less nuanced than “violence between opposing Shiite factions” or a similar description.

I’m sure that some of my discomfort with these phrases derives from their employment of “black” and “Shiite” as nouns rather than as the adjectives I think they should be. I have never liked the usage “10 blacks” or “three Shiites” or “a group of Christians,” (as opposed to “black people,” etc.) because it reduces people to one classifying adjective instead of using the adjective to indicate one salient element of peoples’ humanity.

But there is also something unique to the construction “x-on-x” that estranges the audience from the “x”-es. The fact that the expression evokes a colloquial and objectifying description of sexual activities might be relevant. I think it’s significant that such adjectival phrases are often used to describe pornographic representations of sex.

Of course all media descriptions—and certainly all one-phrase adjectives—inevitably reduce and simplify realities. But describing the violence in Basra as “Shiite-on-Shiite” inaccurately and unnecessarily endowed the violence, and its perpetrators and victims, with a nonexistent simplicity.

Or that’s what I think right now. Thoughts?