From the Editor

Drescher: New style guidelines address people who enter the country illegally

jdrescher@newsobserver.comFebruary 21, 2014 


Student body president candidate Emilio Vicente huddles with campaign staff in the Old East Dormitory recently. Despite being educated entirely in Chatham County, he is considered an international student who must pay out-of-state tuition and fees.


In our recent front-page article about Emilio Vicente, who was running for student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill, we did not describe him as an “illegal resident” or as “undocumented.”

In the past, we used those terms to describe immigrants who entered the country illegally. Vicente’s family is from Guatemala. When Vicente was 6, he traveled with his mother and others through Mexico. The group crossed into Arizona illegally. Vicente grew up in Siler City, where he graduated from high school. Vicente led after the first ballot but lost a runoff this week.

Last year, the Associated Press issued new guidelines for how to describe people who enter the country illegally. AP, a news cooperative of which we are a member, releases style guidelines generally followed by The News & Observer and most American newspapers.

AP now says illegal immigration is “entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission. Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.” AP also advised: “People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally.”

Reporter Jane Stancill’s story explained in the first sentence how Vicente entered the country. But the story didn’t call him an “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented,” which many people consider a vague euphemism. As permitted by AP policy, Stancill quoted Vicente saying, “It’s something I obviously can’t take away, being undocumented.”

Kathleen Carroll, Associated Press executive editor, explained last year that AP had worked to rid its style book of labels. A new section on mental-health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. For example, AP recommends saying a person was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of schizophrenic.

Giving more context

Some ongoing stories are difficult to follow. It can be difficult to remember who did what when and why it matters.

We can help by stepping back, anticipating the questions readers have and doing our best to answer those questions. This year we regularly will produce more of these explanatory Q and As.

This effort to provide more context was prompted by an excellent explanatory Q and A first published at Dec. 9 on the Bonner Bridge debate. The piece was written by senior editor Dan Barkin, who has followed the issue for decades. It was titled, “A newcomer’s guide to the Bonner Bridge Controversy.” You can read it at

Book excerpts coming

Nancy Morgan, a 24-year-old VISTA worker, was killed in the North Carolina mountains in June 1970. No one has ever been convicted of killing Morgan.

Mark Pinsky, then a recent Duke graduate, read about Morgan’s death the day after her body was discovered. He has followed the case since and wrote a compelling book, “Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan.” The book was published last year by John F. Blair of Winston-Salem.

Pinsky thinks he knows who killed Morgan. See if you agree. We will publish excerpts from the book starting next Sunday, March 2. You can read a recent column I wrote on the book at

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or

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