Latinos demand The Charlotte Observer stop using 'illegal' to describe people

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United 4 the Dream protesters outside The Charlotte Observer, Dec. 20, 2011
  • Lacey Williams
  • United 4 the Dream protesters outside The Charlotte Observer, Dec. 20, 2011

Latino activists want the area's media companies to stop using the word "illegal" — and they're protesting outside The Charlotte Observer this week to make their point.

The group includes members of United 4 the Dream, the Charlotte Latin American Coalition's youth group. In addition to urging the Observer to stop using the term "illegal" to describe humans, they also want the daily, and others, to stop using the word "alien." (Creative Loafing uses "undocumented.")

When asked for a comment on the protest, Observer managing editor Cheryl Carpenter replied by email on behalf of the paper's editor, Rick Thames, who is out of town. "We do not use the term 'illegal immigrant' lightly," she wrote. "First, the legal status of the person involved must be relevant to the news being reported. Often times it is not. When it is not, we do not note it." The editors added that the paper has not used the term "illegal alien" for many years, and said the Observer has a reputation for spotlighting "the unfairness and hypocrisy of policies that take advantage of immigrant labor without granting those workers any rights."

Armando Bellmas, director of communications for the Latin American Coalition, said that while his organization appreciates the Observer's humanitarian efforts, its use of "illegal" to describe human beings undermines that work. "We encourage The Charlotte Observer to stop using a word that demeans immigrants for the exact same reason Mr. Thames stated: Immigrants without documents are regularly hired as cheap, exploited labor with a limited ability to protect their own rights. No one else who benefits from the set up, including the employers who recruit and hire these migrants, is labeled this way."

Expect the protesters to be in front of the Observer's offices most of the week, from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m., rain or shine.

Diane Frederick, one of the protesters, had this to say:

In August, we reached out to The Charlotte Observer, a newspaper here in Charlotte, about their usage of the "i" word. We were met with some resistance and by the end of the conversation, even with hearing about our personal stories and reasons as to why this harmful language shouldn't be used in addition to a presentation on legally and journalistically accurate language, the Observer still refused to sign on as an official endorser of the campaign and switch to language such as, "documented/undocumented" or "authorized/unauthorized." They had told us that their policy when reporting on immigrations news was that the word "illegal" would be used once in reference to the individual and after the initial titling, other words would be used to describe the individual. Shortly after that, we came across an article written by the Observer that used the word "illegal" in various forms, multiple times.

So on November 30th, the national Drop the I-Word campaign together with United 4 The Dream launched a local campaign for The Charlotte Observer to cease use of the terms "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien."

Describing immigrants with the i-word, "illegal," is biased, not legally accurate, and fuels dehumanization, criminalization and anti-immigrant legislation. Supporters can go to http://bit.ly/dtiwcharlotte> http://bit.ly/dtiwcharlotte to send a letter to the Observer's editors about why they need to stop using the i-word.

It's time again to remind The Charlotte Observer that the language they are using is both incorrect and dehumanizing.

"This is wrong. If it's not the legal standard or norm, then the paper should not be injecting a political bias into a news story," wrote Edith Garwood, a social justice advocate in Charlotte who supports the protesters.

We twice requested a comment from The Charlotte Observer's managing editor, Cheryl Carpenter, and were told she would respond via e-mail. As of this writing, nada. We'll update when she replies.

Here is the full text Observer managing editor Cheryl Carpenter sent us by email:

This sent on behalf of Rick Thames, the editor of The Charlotte Observer, in response to the story about the protest. He is on vacation this week, but this captures what he wrote to several protesters who emailed the Observer.

The protest is misleading about the Observer's policy. We have the same as the policy of the Society of Professional Journalists. We do not use the term "illegal alien," and have not for many years. The only exception might be in quoting a legal document or a public official.

We also do not use the term "illegal immigrant" lightly. First, the legal status of the person involved must be relevant to the news being reported. Often times it is not. When it is not, we do not note it.

Finally, even when legal status is relevant to the news reported, we only include it after we have confirmed that status with the authorities.

No newspaper in the Carolinas has editorialized more vigorously for immigration reform than the Observer. For years, the newspaper has pointed out the unfairness and hypocrisy of policies that take advantage of immigrant labor without granting those workers any rights. In fact, in 2009, the Observer was honored with the national Robert F. Kennedy Award for humanitarian journalism for exposing the abuse of immigrants in North Carolina's poultry industry. Here is a link to that series, The Cruelest Cuts: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/poultry/.

Millions of people are living in this country under the constant threat of deportation. This is because their presence in this country under our current laws is illegal. While we respect the efforts, and even admire the energy, of those who want the word "illegal" to never be mentioned again in the media, that will not bring this immigration population the resolution it deserves.

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