April 2, 2013; Source:Associated Press

Normally, updates to the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook only cause a stir among the folks who live and breathe the linguistic esoterica that goes into editing news articles. (For many copyeditors, 2010 is forever seared into their memories as the year the AP decided to make “website” one word, lowercase.) But this month, the Stylebook found itself making headlines across news outlets from Fox News to Salon for its decision to abandon use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

The new AP Stylebook entry reads:

Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

In their announcement, the AP maintains that “ ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

The change comes at a time when a bipartisan Senate group is on the brink of introducing broad immigration legislation. Some critics of the Stylebook update claim that the AP is trying to influence the debate with, in the words of the conservative Media Research Center, “politically-correct mumble.” Meanwhile, immigration-advocacy groups have found it a cause for celebration. Salon notes: “The move comes more than a year after Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, undocumented immigrant and activist Jose Antonio Vargas pushed news behemoths The New York Times and the Associated Press to drop the term.”

Any development that could be construed as introducing bias to its pages is a very serious matter for the Stylebook, the de facto style bible for U.S. news outlets – left- and right-leaning alike. According to its architects, the Stylebook change is an attempt to embrace increasingly neutral language across the board, an overall effort aimed at “ridding the Stylebook of labels.” (For example, the AP recommends that writers use the phrase “diagnosed with schizophrenia” rather than “schizophrenic.”) Considering the AP’s current mission – which could be viewed as progressive – it does not seem far-fetched to think that the AP will continue to make headlines with more controversial changes in the future. –Shaula Clark