Nativist Stylebook Dictates News Writing

October 7, 2011
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On October 4, 2011, The New York Times reported on the new immigration laws in Alabama and the way these laws will no doubt impact Latinas/os. As Campbell Robertson notes, Alabama now has the toughest immigration laws in the United States, doing for the most part what Arizona does, but in addition, forcing schools to report the immigrant status of children and making unenforceable most contracts between citizens and undocumented immigrants. Worse than Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws, Alabama’s foreclose political rights but also all economic rights. As some of you are aware, after the Plyler v. Doe case, schools cannot deny education to an undocumented child. But Alabama’s leaders are quite creative. What they are trying to do is use the schools public records to deport the children’s parents. Alabama’s political leadership is betting the children will be gone with the parents. Friday, two days after Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn declared the law constitutional, 5% of Latino children were missing from Alabama public schools. 

This wonderful piece of news reporting is written using the highly troubling term of “illegal immigrant.” This is consistent with The New York Timesand the AP stylebooks, which recommend the term illegal immigrant over other terms. I believe the use of this term makes both institutions complicit in the normalization of nativist language. Ironically, nativism, which proposes that the United States should remain mono-ethnic, is clearly not a majoritarian political position, but nativist language has become the rule in the public sphere and Alabama is its product. Mr. Robertson may indeed not embrace nativist principles, but his newspaper will not allow him to write this into his news and instead will force him to write his piece with nativist terminology.

Being attentive to the public sphere means also being attentive to the ways in which self-regulated media industries, such as printed news, regulate racialized discourse. Since 2005 to the present, the discourse of nativism has dominated our news landscape and has strongly influenced institutional policies, foreclosing the possibility of using majoritarian news outlets to launch a pro-immigrant rights offensive. This is evidenced in the way the basic terminology of “illegal immigrant” has become regulated intothe normal journalistic practices of printed news outlets. In 2008, the AP Stylebook, one of the key sources for journalistic language use, approved this problematic term and assured that the term “illegal immigrant” should be preferred over illegal alien or undocumented worker. Although the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalist Association, and National Association of Black Journalists have strong guidelines on the matter (always avoid “illegal immigrant”, “illegal”, and “illegal alien”), these organizations have clearly lost the battle and today these terms can be heard in Fox, yes, but also in ABC, CNN, they can be read in The Washington Postand even the paper nativists love to hate, The New York Times. The result is a public sphere that normalizes derogatory language against the advice of all minority journalistic organizations.

These uses have real effects in the public sphere, shaping the way discourses about immigration are created and recreated. I teach a class called Latina/o Media Studies, and my students cannot immediately see the logic of why I am asking them to use “undocumented” instead of “illegal” in their papers. “They did cross the border illegally, didn’t they?” is often their argument. Moreover, in the last few years I have witnessed my students reproduce the notion that there are only two types of people, citizens and “illegals,” often forgetting that most Latina/o immigrants who are not citizens are here with legal documents such as green cards. So, when they hear the term non-citizen they also hear “illegal,” a racialized mental schema that proves that the normalization of nativist terminology and the tone of hegemonic discourse around immigration have profound repercussions in their juridical subjectivities. Why should the subjectivities of people in Alabama be any different?

I encourage readers of this post to read the reasons why these terms matter at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.


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