Do news organizations hurt free speech when they ban offensive words?

2013-05-27T00:00:00Z Do news organizations hurt free speech when they ban offensive words?Hans Peter Ibold Arizona Daily Star
May 27, 2013 12:00 am  • 

From now on, no one will be described in an Associated Press news story as an "illegal immigrant," "illegal alien," "illegal" or as "undocumented."

The AP announced in April that its stylebook will not sanction these common terms. Or, for the sound-bite seekers: The AP banned some words.

Hey, that sounds like totalitarian style!

Yes, you should get riled up when such a definitive guide asks its readers not to use terms deemed offensive.

Because it's not just a few newsroom nerds and grammarians who abide by the stylebook. Thousands of AP organizations around the world follow the stylebook's recommendations.

If the stylebook declares a term verboten, then it pretty much vanishes from the roughly 1,300 U.S. newspapers that cooperatively own the AP, as well as from all stories that adhere to AP style.

Higher-ups at the AP say they intend to rid the stylebook of all labels. According to the updated entry on illegal immigration, "illegal" and "undocumented" should describe actions, not people. When used to describe people, these terms become imprecise labels, the AP claims.

It's an Orwellian attack on free speech!

The AP isn't compelling journalists to bias their coverage or do less reporting. Instead, by asking journalists to avoid facile labels, the AP is advocating for more precise, contextual reporting.

For example, in its new entry on illegal immigration, the stylebook suggests that journalists "specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?"

This call for more context would only have a chilling effect on speech in the case of an exceptionally lazy journalist who would resist the extra work.

By the way, the stylebook offers suggestions for the stymied journalist, such as "a person entering or living in a country without legal permission."

More context and the disappearance of terms like "illegal immigrant" could advance the way the American public discusses and thinks about major issues.

But in its "illegal immigrant" decision, the AP caved to activist demands!

Journalist-turned-activist Jose Antonio Vargas jump-started the discussion about the use of "illegal immigrant" as part of an ongoing campaign by his Define American initiative.

So, yes, an activist catalyzed change at the AP and at other news organizations. But activists like Vargas don't change society alone. It's the merit of their ideas that inspires a critical mass of change-makers.

No, it encourages precise reporting

Editor's note

The Star does not follow the new AP style and uses "illegal immigrant" to describe someone in the country without permission.

Editor's note

Every Monday we offer pro/con pieces from the McClatchy-Tribune News Service to give readers a broad view of issues.

Hans Peter Ibold is an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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