The Associated Press announced Tuesday that it is striking the term "illegal immigrant" from its influential media style guide, explaining that it is improper to describe a person as illegal when only their actions have run afoul of the law.


The shift, which comes a year and a half after the Society of Professional Journalists banned the term, naturally applies to reporters working for the AP, but it goes even further than that.

To the uninitiated, "The Associated Press Stylebook" is, in a manner of speaking, like the Bible for journalists of many stripes. When it comes to writing news, almost every major professional outlet requires its reporters know and adhere to AP style or a variation thereof. So when that style changes, it's not just a single wire service that adopts the new terminology: it's virtually the entire mainstream press.

The term "illegal immigrant" is particularly troubling to some for its politically perjorative use by conservatives, which led a major minority advocacy and activism group called Colorlines to launch a campaign called "Drop the I-Word" in 2010, hoping to pressure the nation's most influential media centers to stop calling people "illegal."

Word of the decision to do just that was published Tuesday on the AP's Definitive Source blog, where AP media relations director Paul Colford explained that they revisited the term, even after declaring in October 2012 that "illegal immigrant" is acceptable in certain cases, partly because of an internal effort to rid the guide of inaccurate labels. News of Colford's announcement was broken by ABC News/Univision reporter Christina Costantini.

The new style guide's entry for illegal immigration directs reporters to "use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person," and cites "illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant," as an example. "Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission."

"Is this the best way to describe someone in a country without permission?" Colford wrote. "We believe that it is for now. We also believe more evolution is likely down the road."

"Will the new guidance make it harder for writers?" he added. "Perhaps just a bit at first. But while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate."

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Photo: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker, creative commons licensed.