Creative Loafing, Charlotte, the leading alternative weekly publication in Charlotte, N.C., for over 25 years, has recently pledged to drop the i-word. The weekly made the change thanks to the local Drop the I-Word campaign led by United 4 the Dream, the youth group of the Latin American Coalition. This is a huge victory for the youth in Charlotte and for all of us working to get journalists to Drop the I-Word.
Creative Loafing’s print edition reaches more than 276,000 readers and last week that audience saw the campaign on the cover. But more importantly, moving forward they will see immigration pieces that refer to people as being “undocumented immigrants” and not “illegal immigrants.”
Drop the I-Word members spent a few hours celebrating by spreading the news downtown, passing out copies of the paper. They are energized about reaching more outlets and getting them to change their i-word policies. They’ve reached other print and broadcast outlets locally that are now considering policy changes. Thanks to their tireless efforts, last year, Mike Collins, host of “Charlotte Talks” at WFAE, the local NPR station, signed the pledge to drop the i-word and Jennifer Roberts, chair of the Mecklenburg County Commission also signed the pledge.
The journalists at Creative Loafing came to know about the Drop the I-Word campaign in January. When the Charlotte Observer announced the first baby born in the city in 2012, he happened to be Latino, and he was met with hate and the i-word in the comment section of the article that announced his birth. The Drop the I-Word campaign reached out to The Observer again to drop the i-word in an open letter, given that the racially charged connection could be drawn so explicitly in the Observer’s pages. They published the open letter from the group, but they did not drop the i-word. Creative Loafing, however, did take notice and last week they took a stand. United 4 the Dream is hoping others, including the Charlotte Observer, will follow.
In the pages of last week’s Creative Loafing, the letter from Editor-in-Chief Mark Kemp was devoted to the power of words and he promised that moving forward, no one will be described as “illegal” in the publication. News and culture editor Ana McKenzie wrote a column explaining the reasons as why they decided to drop the i-word. She was joined by guest columnist Anthony W. Hager, with a rebuttal column defending use of the i-word—the idea was to show both perspectives, but also to model healthy discussion.
The bulk of Hager’s argument conflates undocumented people with criminality. He says that “if journalists won’t admit the obvious fact that illegal immigrants have immigrated illegally, they have little to contribute toward solving the issue.” At Drop the I-Word we inform journalists that the i-word is not a legal term and that if there are other terms and descriptions that can be used that are not harmful, like “unauthorized immigrant” or “overstayed visa” why not use them?
I spoke with MacKenzie, who joined Creative Loafing in the spring, and she says that as an editor she wanted to start her tenure well. Growing up in Brownsville, Texas, she knew people who didn’t have papers and in the community people were not slandered with the i-word. I asked McKenzie what she thinks about the assertion many journalists still make that the i-word is neutral language. She says, “it kind of amazes me that mainstream papers are so quick to say that it’s neutral language because anytime a story is posted on a newspaper’s site when immigrants are mentioned, undocumented or otherwise, there is a massively negative response from commenters. Oftentimes papers will completely shut off the commenting on those articles, many of them never even mention people being undocumented.”
When McKenzie asked United 4 the Dream what outlets they had received the most positive reaction from, they told her that Spanish language papers were very supportive. She says, “Spanish language papers know the community better than we or the Charlotte Observer because they cover the community more regularly and more regularly speak to undocumented immigrants. If it’s a no-brainer for them to sign onto the Drop the I-Word campaign, then it’s in our best interest to sign onto it because they know the community better than we do.
McKenzie says she takes the AP stylebook very seriously and knows it well. One thing she’s noticed is that “they do struggle with how to identify minorities in this country and a rule that may exist today, may not exist in 2013.” She believes that upon further review, “the editors at the Associated Press who decide things very practically and who do handle a lot of their decisions with a lot of care, will come to realize that it is code language, that it isn’t neutral at all.” She says that just because the Associated Press or the dictionary say that something is correct, doesn’t make it so, because they are not always looking at the different ways the terms will be applied.