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Associated Press drops the I-word from style guide

Courtenay Brown Special to the AmNews | 6/20/2013, 11:18 a.m.

You may be seeing fewer news sources refer to immigrants as "illegal" in the upcoming weeks.

After increased pressure from organizations such as the Drop the I-Word campaign, the Associated Press (AP) announced yesterday that they would discontinue their use of the word "illegal" to refer to immigrants in the United States without the paperwork indicating "official" citizenship.

Colorlines; a daily news site covering race, culture, and organizing; and its publisher, the Applied Research Center (ARC), launched the Drop the I-Word campaign in 2010 as a public education campaign that challenges various media outlets to stop referring to immigrants as "illegal," which the leaders behind the campaign say is a "racially charged slur" that fuels violence, according to the Colorlines website.

The new entry, to be immediately added to the AP Stylebook Online as well as the Spanish-language stylebook, states that the phrase "illegal" is only to be used to refer to an action, not a person.For example, "illegal immigration" would be acceptable, but not "illegal immigrant," except in "direct quotes essential to the story," the AP website states.

This proves a big victory for the campaign because print and broadcast journalists around the world use the AP Stylebook as a primary writing style guide for the purpose of consistency of all writers and editors.

"It's great to see the Associated Press stand up for responsible journalistic standards. The style guide is the last word on journalistic practice so it's particularly important for the AP to set this standard," said Rinku Sen, the executive director of the ARC and publisher of Colorlines, said.

In October of last year, the AP defended its use of "illegal," by noting that it is more accurate than "undocumented," or "unauthorized," choices that are preferred by the Drop the I-Word Campaign. According to a newsletter by Deputy Manager and Editor of Standards and Production, Tom Kent, the usage of terms other than "illegal" hid "the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law."

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll attributes the decision to eliminate the phrase "illegal immigrant" from their stylebook to the ever-changing English language.

"Changing is a part of the AP Style because the English language is constantly evolving, enriched by new words, phrases, and uses," she wrote on the AP's blog. "Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere."

Since the Drop the I-Word campaign launched, media outlets such as NBC, ABC, CNN, Univision, and Fox News Latino, have pledged to stop referring to people as "illegal" in their news coverage.

While Sen said that the AP's decision to drop the i-word is a "crucial victory", she adds that there is more work to be done.

Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times Public Editor, tweeted: "On 'illegal immigrants': I'm told that @nytimes is also working on revision to its usage guidelines to 'provide more nuance and options.'"

Since The New York Times follows their own stylebook guidelines, the AP's changes will not apply to the newspaper. While Sullivan acknowledges the efforts of The Times to "reconsider" the usage of the term on her blog, she says that unlike the AP, if there were changes, they will not be as sweeping.

According to Sen, Colorlines and the Drop the I-Word Campaign are willing to "offer a broom."