The Common Good

Dropping the 'I' Word

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1 

I often wonder how frequently people think about the impact their words have on others, specifically, on the development of human perception. The conclusion I’ve sadly reached is that when a language norm is established by dominant cultural forces —such as the news media, in our day – the truth seldom matters. Once something is spoken and repeated enough times people consider it to be true regardless of the real facts or circumstances.

One recent debate clearly illustrating the power of words is around which terminology the media should use when referencing immigrants who are in this country without authorization to work.  Those outlets that use the word “illegal” defend this practice by pointing to the Associated Press’ Stylebook, which designates “illegal” as the appropriate term. Those using the term “undocumented” have noted the changing circumstances within the culture and recognize that using such inflammatory terminology only adds fuel to the proverbial political fire around the issue of immigration

So, let me state something clearly. The media’s usage of the word “illegal” is dehumanizing and distorting. When used by journalists, it introduces a bias into their reporting and risks prejudicing the reader against the needs, concerns, and humanity of immigrant communities, regardless of their documentation status.  

Changing this practice requires the type of courageous challenge being offered by the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who is currently urging both the AP and New York Times to stop using the term “illegal” in their reporting on immigration. However, Vargas notes that a larger, more collaborative effort is also needed:

“This is also a grassroots local issue. To me, the people who read the local community newspapers, watch the local television shows and listen to local radio, how do we get them to actually think about the word that they’re using? How do we leverage the Internet and social media, and how do we ask local people to talk to their local communities? This is not just about the big organizations like the AP and the New York Times, this is also about local papers and local TV stations and local radio.”

Within our society, the media remains a powerful cultural force even as they pursue their journalistic commitment to examining facts and reporting truth. The sooner the media changes their practices, the faster change will be seen within the larger culture. Then our words will better encapsulate and reflect the basic truth that people are people who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Period. 

Ivone Guillen is Sojourners' Immigration Campaigns Fellow. A native of Washington State, where she lived and worked amongst immigrant communities, Ivone graduated from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., in 2009 with a degree in international studies and Spanish, and worked with Tierra Vida (Land of Life) as program coordinator for C.A.S.A. and was a immigration policy fellow at Bread For The World before joining Sojourners in September 2011.

Speech bubble image, Petr Vaclavek / Shutterstock.com

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