Free the Press: Illegal Immigrants, Great Britain, and Jana Winter

(Marion Doss)

(Marion Doss)

(originally from Washington Times Communities)
Last week, the Associated Press deserved the criticism it received when it adapted the official AP Stylebook to exclude the phrase “illegal immigrant.” Arguing the world “illegal” can only describe an action, the AP instead mandated writers use “living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.” 

The change affects hundreds of newspapers across the country, as AP Style is the industry standard for journalism.

This is not the first time the AP has tried to enforce political correctness. In 1986, the AP revised the Stylebook to say this: “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.”

The Associated Press should not serve as the arbiter of truth and acceptable speech. Though AP Style can ensure professionalism and clarity in articles, this trend toward speech regulation should cause us alarm.

In Britain, the government has also been toying with the idea of regulating the press. A new proposal would create a “National Press Regulator” (NPR) that could impose fines for poor conduct.

Prompting this new law was the revelation that, in 2006, journalists had hacked phones and bribed policemen to gain information. Though these abuses are worrisome, the offenders should be held accountable through current laws. Crossing the line of speech regulation is a step down a dangerous path.

The Economist agrees, saying,

“For us, the choice is clear: we believe society gains more from a free press than it loses from the tabloids’ occasional abuse of defenceless people.”

In the United States, a current controversy reflects the importance of a free press. Jana Winter, a Fox News reporter, could face jail time after refusing to reveal the source of a story about the notebook of James Holmes, the shooter in the Aurora movie theater massacre.

In her affidavit to the court, Winter eloquently argues,

“If I am forced to reveal the identities of persons whom I have promised to shield from public exposure, simply put, I will be unable to function effectively in my profession, and my career will be over. As such, my free speech rights, as well as those of my sources, will be chilled.”

According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism report on the State of the News Media (2013), media organizations are suffering. Cutbacks in staff have resulted in some organizations turning to automated reporting, with technology turning data into news stories.

The average story length has also shrunk, indicating a trend toward shallow overview pieces rather than in-depth analyses. The report picks up on another important trend, saying,

“At the same time, newsmakers and others with information they want to put into the public arena have become more adept at using digital technology and social media to do so on their own, without any filter by the traditional media.”

The Economist echoes the report, recognizing that media organizations are relying more on articles and opinions from outside sources, such as think tanks or guest contributors.

If the purpose of news articles is to be inoffensive and politically correct, then the news organizations should continue accepting the stringent AP guidelines. They will continue to see their readership decline in the information age, as bloggers and online contributors fill the void of investigative reporting.

If, however, media’s role is to expose truth and uncover secrecy, the organizations should resist efforts toward speech regulation and keep fighting for a free press.

8 responses to “Free the Press: Illegal Immigrants, Great Britain, and Jana Winter

  1. ‘Enforcing political correctness,” “the arbiter of truth and acceptable speech,” and “trend toward speech regulation” are quite ‘loaded’ phrases. Maybe opinion pieces should be given some leeway, but these phrases, in my opinion, are a little too much hype. Sorry.

    The APStyle book may be the industry standard, but apart from its own writers, it has no enforcement powers. Those who follow the standard do so voluntarily.

    Although I may agree with your objections to the specific examples you gave, I trust that on the whole the APStyle book serves a valuable function (since 1953) and do not see it as some sort of recent, possibly oppressive, trend toward speech regulation. I recently have read some material posted on Facebook by a former Michigan legislator and endorsed by other current legislators, using language quite offensive to gays. I respect his right to use such language as violently as I may disagree with it. However, I welcome professional standards, such as those reviewed and posted each year by APStyle Book, to lift professional reporting and professional opinion pieces to a respectful standard. I do not wish to see AP pieces describing gays as f******, for example, as his particular posting did.

    Linking AP’s function to what is happening in Britain and with Jana Winters is unfortunate.

    • True, it’s “voluntary.” In the sense that writers for hundreds of newspapers are required (by their bosses/editors) to write in AP Style. Just as citizens are voluntarily living in Britain, and Winter is voluntarily choosing to write the story. Doesn’t make it acceptable.

      Describing gays as f****** or any derogatory term is reprehensible, but that’s not the issue here. I would argue that “illegal immigrants” is not a slur or offensive speech, rather it is simply an identification.

      Shall we now refer to felons as “those who have committed a felony” or “inmates” as “those who reside in a prison?” The sacrifice to clarity and brevity by requiring the use of “those who reside in a country illegally” for every mention of “illegal immigrants” is not worth it.

      • “I would argue that “illegal immigrants” is not a slur or offensive speech, rather it is simply an identification.” That’s where you and AP differ. Perhaps, by our standards, they are being overly sensitive. However, their reason for the change must be their belief that their suggested designation gives such persons more dignity. That is, they are persons like us, generally moral, seeking the kinds of happinesses we also seek. We all commit offenses of one type or another. Their offense happens to be residing in a country illegally. I suspect that in their minds using the terms illegal immigrant, or even more so, illegal alien, causes a reader to merely see them as criminals or aliens, lower on the scale than the rest of us flawed humans.

        • Yep, that’d be where we differ. For I don’t think honesty must be sacrificed for the sake of dignity – I think the two can coexist. They also said “undocumented” wasn’t good enough either.

          • I disagree that honesty is being sacrificed for dignity here. The current term defines them as criminal, which is indeed true. However, they are more deeply defined as persons; they happen to have a flaw as do the rest of us. The new guideline preserves that honest description better. What is sacrificed is simplicity. I’m beginning to like their new guideline better and better. It may be calling me to a specific repentance. I must see these folks first of all as persons, and secondarily as criminal, not in the reverse order. The new guideline encourages me to do that more effectively.

            • So would you agree then that “felons” should be changed to “those who have committed a felony,” “sex offender” as “one who has committed a sexual offense,” and so on? I guess I don’t believe that identifying one as a “felon” implies I don’t consider them a person.

              • yes and no. Yes to the suggested changes, but no to the implication.
                I emphasized how I should first see them and then secondarily see them. I did not begin to suggest that such a label as ‘felon’ implies one does not see a person. I apologize if that is what I unintentionally communicated. Each label is correct . I’m simply suggesting that one description, in my opinion, communicates more honestly and with more dignity. I desire to first of all see a person and then the flaw. The longer but more nuanced label helps ME do that.

                • I can see that. But do you really want all of our news articles to reflect that philosophy? “John Doe, one who once committed a felony, along with Joe Sparks, one who committed an act of burglary, met with Jane Doe, one who committed white-collar crimes.” Seems like a nightmare for readability. And in the end, you’re still defining them by their act (because that’s what is relevant to the story)

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