On Tuesday, The New York Times updated its policies on how it uses the phrase “illegal immigrant” in its coverage. The newspaper did not go as far as The Associated Press, and it will continue to allow the phrase to be used for “someone who enters, lives in or works in the United States without proper legal authorization.” But it encourages reporters and editors to “consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions.” …
“Advocates on one side of this political debate have called on news organizations to use only the terms they prefer,” Mr. Corbett said. “But we have to make those decisions for journalistic reasons alone, based on what we think best informs our readers on this important topic.” He added: “It’s not our job to take sides.”
Personally, I’m not all that interested in debating what terms should be used where about which people how and when. Not at this particular time in this particular space, at least. Rather, I want to focus on Mr. Corbett’s assertion that it is not the Times’ job to take sides, because I find it is founded upon a fundamentally flawed premise. My counter, put simply, is that it is near impossible to not take sides.
A similar conversation comes up often in educational circles, namely around the idea of “indoctrination”. Many believe that teachers ought to remain unbiased on certain (or even all!) topics… that is to say, they should not take sides. But how is that accomplished? Let’s use the current examples, to avoid mixing analogies. If I taught a class that involved the topic of immigration, and a student used the term “illegal immigrant” or “illegals” and I said nothing on the matter… would I not be taking “the side” that such terms are acceptable? If another student used the term “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker” and I sad nothing on the matter… would I not be taking “the side” that these terms are also acceptable? Now, technically, I would not be taking sides in declaring which of these is necessarily preferable, more accurate, or correct. But I would still be making clear the idea that these terms are appropriate to use. And that is still the taking of a side.
“But Kazzy!” I’ll pretend you objected, “You’re not making that determination as much as you are allowing your students the opportunity to express themselves freely. That is the side you are taking.” And I could make that argument… right up until the moment I stop my students from using terms like “wetback”. Because if I stop my students from using the term “wetback”, I’d be taking a clear position that certain words are acceptable for discourse in the classroom and others are not. And by extension, I would be taking the side that the descriptor “illegal”, as well as the descriptor “undocumented” (which itself has opponents), are legitimate in a way that the term “wetback” is not. I’d have taken a side.
And this isn’t a bad thing! As a teacher, it is my job to take sides on a number of issues. It is my job to indoctrinate! I must be careful in how I do so, of course. For instance, as a teacher in a secular institution I am comfortable indoctrinating my students with the idea that they ought to be respectful of other people’s religions but am not comfortable (and would consider it inappropriate) to indoctrinate my students in the religious teachings of a particular faith. But I indoctrinate all the livelong day… “Say please and thank you.” BAM! Indoctrination. “Don’t hit.” You just got indoctrinated! “Look and listen when others are talking.” Indoctrination all up in your face, kid!
Bringing this all full circle, Mr. Corbett is dead wrong when he says that it is not the Times’ job to take sides. The Times is charged with taking sides because it is impossible for it not do so. By encouraging but not requiring its writers to use alternatives, it is taking a position that “illegals” and “illegal immigrants” are less-than-perfect but acceptable phrases. Which is a legitimate and acceptable position for it to take. But pretending or thinking that it is not doing so is just plain silly. The Times takes sides every day. When it puts one story on the front page and another on B32, it is taking the side that the former is more newsworthy than the latter. When it advises its writers against using the Oxford comma, it is taking the side that writing like a bunch of butt-hats is somehow preferable to not doing so. And when it allows certain phrases or terms and not others, it is taking a side on what language is appropriate to use. We should be thankful that it does all this. This is what we charge newspapers, especially ones as powerful as the Times, to do. This is precisely what their job is, even if we don’t always agree with the particular side they are taking. And Mr. Corbett is wrong for saying otherwise.