Challenges to the i-word just hit a nerve at Fox News Channel. Just last week, Megyn Kelly, anchor of “America Live,” invited Jehmu Greene, former president of the Women’s Media Center, and Brad Blakeman, former deputy assistant to George H.W. Bush, for a “fair and balanced” debate on the terms “illegal immigrant” vs. “undocumented immigrant.” During the segment, Kelly rattled off a series of earnestly stated but false analogies that trivialized dangerous language. “You could say that a burglar is an unauthorized visitor,” offered Kelly. “You could say that a rapist is a non-consensual sex-partner, which obviously could be considered offensive to the victims of those crimes. How far could you take this?”
The accusations of political correctness are a predictable way to dismiss the serious debate most recently sparked by a short piece by Leo Laurence in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Quill magazine. Laurence covers efforts by the SPJ’s diversity committee (of which he’s a member) to educate Society members about how the criminalizing language can “offend Latinos” and contradict a fundamental right of American law. Laurence holds a JD and in a previous post in the SPJ’s diversity blog, he talks about a judge being the only person qualified to evaluate if someone is doing something illegally, “not a journalist or politician or anti-immigrant advocate.” He makes the point here:
Largely because of this constitutional doctrine stating that everyone is innocent of any crime until proven innocent in a court of law, we journalists add the critical adjective “suspected” when writing a story about someone who has been arrested or is a police target.
Except when referring to brown-skinned Latinos, however. Journalists today commonly refer to undocumented persons as “illegal immigrants,” or more offensively: “illegal aliens” (as if they were from another planet?).
Laurence conferred with diversity committee chairperson George Daniels, who outlined “action steps” their group could take to inform SPJ members about the harms of the i-word and the context of the immigration debate. It’s not a formal organization-wide campaign, as others have reported, but Laurence hopes to reach delegates with information they need to consider a adopting a resolution at the organization’s national convention. The Society of Professional Journalists’ guiding code of ethics states that, “Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.” Daniels writes in an email to Laurence:
This is not about being politically correct. We, in SPJ, want to make the argument that being sensitive to those we cover is just the ethical thing to do since we as SPJ members aim to “minimize harm” when we report.
Preventing harm is at the root of all efforts to drop the i-word. The i-word and related terms are code for racial and ethnic hatred and intolerance and they do lead to violence. This is a fact that anti-immigrant pundits want to ignore.
When we spoke with Leo Laurence this week, one of the things he mentioned is that his mailbox quickly filled up with hate mail. The heated push back by the right may in part explain the note posted on the SPJ site this week:
The views expressed by Leo Laurence in Quill magazine, SPJ’s Diversity Committee blog “Who’s News,” and on subsequent television programs are his personal opinion and do not reflect the views of SPJ nor its Diversity Committee. Contrary to what has been reported, SPJ has not engaged in any initiative to end the use of the term “illegal immigrant.”
Laurence was also attacked on FOX News’ “O’Reilly Factor.” Bill O’Reilly offered an inane analogy, asking Laurence if by his logic Osama Bin Laden can’t be called a terrorist unless he’s been convicted. Laurence replied, “When you change the facts you change the discussion, I’m not talking about terrorists.” O’Reilly told Laurence that he disagrees with being told to use another term besides his preferred term “illegal alien,” which the government uses too. After SPJ President Hajit Limor clarified the difference between SPJ’s stance and Laurence’s position, O’Reilly did his best to paint the SPJ as unbalanced:
The society doesn’t endorse Mr. Laurence, but the society gives Mr. Laurence the credibility to go out to go out and educate people like me who don’t I guess meet the standards of the Society of Professional Journalists because I don’t have any problem labeling people illegal aliens when they come into this country without proper documentation, I think that’s the accurate thing to do, the ‘no spin thing’ to do.
O-Reilly tried chipping away at the credibility of the SPJ and Mr. Laurence by framing the issue as one of political correctness and word policing. The political correctness accusation we continue to encounter is meant to shut down reasonable debate. Let’s be clear that while Laurence is talking about the presumption of innocence, we are also talking about protecting human lives and eradicating dangerous, racist language. And most importantly immigrants themselves are demanding to be treated with the dignity they deserve by responsible journalism.
On Kelly’s show Jehmu Greene made the point that the least we could all agree on was not contributing to creating a hateful environment, in light of the violence targeted at immigrants worldwide. Blakeman followed up by saying,
If an individual journalist feels that they want to use that term [undocumented], more power to them, but to collectively gang up and say that all journalists must use this word—that “illegal immigration,” “illegal alien,” must not be used to describe these people because it creates violence—is nonsense. There is no proof that that occurs, the fact of the matter is that you’re talking about status, you’re not attacking the individual and we do have a problem of illegal aliens being in this country.
Dehumanizing language has dangerous consequences and plays a central role not only in legitimating racial profiling, but in creating a hateful environment that breeds violence. The use of the i-word and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the media has risen throughout the last decade. In that same time, we have also seen a rise in hate crimes against Latinos. According to the FBI, from 2003 to 2007, hate crimes against Latinos rose by nearly 40 percent. In 2008, Michael Lieberman, Anti-Defamation League Washington counsel stated: “There is a direct connection between the tenor of the political debate and the daily lives of immigrants in our communities. It is no accident that as the immigration debate has demonized immigrants as “invaders” who poison our communities with disease and criminality, haters have taken matters into their own hands and hate crimes against Latinos are on the rise for the fourth consecutive year.”
In Long Island in 2008, Marcelo Lucero and his friend, Angel Loja, both from Ecuador, were on their way to a friend’s house when seven high school students approached and attacked them as part of the sport they called “beaner hopping” or “Mexican hopping.” Angel testified that before the stabbing death of Marcelo, one of the teens said, “‘Hey, fucking nigger; fucking Mexican; fucking illegals, you come to this country to take our money.” In the aftermath of the hate crime, researchers found that the hateful environment set the scene for that crime and several others leading immigrants in the town to live constantly in fear.
Leo Laurence has received tons of hate mail, if you’d like to reach out to express support of his efforts, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And let’s continue to ask family, friends and colleagues to sign the drop the i-word pledge at droptheiword.com.