Society of Professional Journalists Votes to Drop the I-Word

Thanks to SPJ's diversity committee, we're on our way to accurate coverage of undocumented immigrants in the media.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Oct 04, 2011

Last week, the 7,800-member Society of Professional Journalists passed a resolution at the Excellence in Journalism convention in New Orleans to drop the i-word. The resolution discontinued use of the term "illegal alien", and suggested continued discussion to re-evaluate the implications of the use of "illegal immigrant." 

It’s been a long road for SPJ members who have led the charge to drop the i-word. For the past two years, Leo Laurence, a member of SPJ’s diversity committee, has been leading the charge to get his colleagues to drop the i-word, pointing to the unconstitutionality of the language. The resolution was completely rejected at last year’s conference. Laurence has suffered personal and professional attacks, often via hate mail and phone calls following a Fox News appearance last December. Still, diversity committee members have focused on building awareness about the damaging term in the last year. And now their work has paid off. Big time.

Richard Prince has a full report of how it all went down. I chatted with Mr. Laurence this morning about the last minute changes and heroic efforts by the diversity committee members. 

"We got it unanimously through the diversity committee, but the resolution committee didn’t want to send the draft we submitted to the floor. Luckily some members and a delegate stepped in to make changes and the speaking time was shared when it came up," Laurence recalled, noting that he was surprised and delighted when the resolution finally passed. "The next step will be to get the word out to as many members of media as possible. A key thing I’d like for our committee to discuss the next time we meet is changing the AP stylebook."

Nothing is more compelling than hearing about how this language impacts human beings directly. Rebecca Aguilar is a Dallas-based journalist who sits on the board member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists — the first body of journalists to take up the issue in the mid 90s and again in recent years — and a recent member of SPJ’s diversity committee. She delivered a passionate speech about the damaging language and her own mother’s plea to drop the i-word. From Ms. Aguilar’s NAHJ bio: 

I’m the daughter of Rebecca and Alfredo Aguilar, immigrants from Mexico. They came to this country with nothing and eventually became civil rights, migrant rights and union rights activists in Ohio. From my parents, I learned it was important to help give a voice to those afraid to speak up and who felt they had been wronged by someone in society … I spent several summers picking tomatoes in the Ohio fields with my mom and dozens of migrant workers from Texas. When my parents weren’t fighting for better pay and working conditions for migrant workers, they were doing so for members of the autoworkers union … My father had the first Spanish-language radio program in northwest Ohio. He showed me that the media is a powerful tool that can inform, educate and create change.

Bravo, Rebecca, for being an uncompromising truth-teller! 

The final resolution as posted on the SPJ diversity committee blog, reads:

WHEREAS, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges all journalists to be "honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information" and;

WHEREAS, mainstream news reports are increasingly using the politically charged phrase "illegal immigrant" and the more offensive and bureaucratic "illegal alien" to describe undocumented immigrants, particularly Latinos and;

WHEREAS, a fundamental principle embedded in our U.S. Constitution is that everyone (including non-citizens) is considered innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law and;

WHEREAS, this constitutional doctrine, often described as "innocent-until-proven-guilty," applies not just to U.S. Citizens but to everyone in the United States and;

WHEREAS, only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act and;

WHEREAS, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is also concerned with the increasing use of pejorative and potentially inaccurate terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists convention of delegates: urges journalists and style guide editors to stop the use of illegal alien and encourage continuous discussion and re-evaluation of the use of illegal immigrant in news stories.

This is a huge step forward for our community of Drop the I-Word ambassadors, allies and supporters. It’s also a big moment for immigrant rights advocates as a whole. The resolution succinctly debunks any reason a journalist could pose for using any iteration of the term "illegals." The last paragraph of the resolution is about re-evaluating and discussing the term "illegal immigrant." It’s not a complete denouncement as first proposed, but it does open the door for accurate coverage. Eventually, that will lead to fully rejecting such language and starting a conversation that, frankly, has not been happening at this scale until now. 

To note, there have been quite a few milestones regarding the i-word and journalism in the past few months. In June, Pulitzer prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas bravely came out as undocumented, and not as "illegal" — modeling humane language for millions, including his colleagues at the country’s mainstream paper of record. In September, UNITY: Journalists of Color Inc. endorsed the Drop the I-Word campaign. It was also exciting when UNITY co-sponsored a webinar with New America Media (hosted by the Applied Research Center, publisher of for journalists on how the i-word helps reinforce a legally inaccurate, deliberate anti-immigrant strategy

Now, we have to thank the NAHJ and SPJ’s diversity committee for this important and crucial new development. We are excited that the tide is turning, and we are rolling up our sleeves to continue building awareness with UNITY and SPJ diversity committee members. We’re also committed to reaching more people about how the i-word,  in all forms, is dehumanizing, racially charged, legally inaccurate and — as Mr. Laurence says — unconstitutional.