A protest is planned for Thursday in front of the Santa Barbara News-Press offices after the paper published a headline that organizers say was inaccurate and offensive. A petition that demands a retraction is also circulating online.
On the front page of the daily’s Saturday edition, a story about a new California law (AB 60) that allows state residents to apply for a driver’s license without having to prove citizenship ran under the headline “Illegals line up for driver’s licenses.” The piece also featured a photograph of identifiable but unnamed men and women waiting at the DMV.
The story and the headline attracted the attention of a UC Santa Barbara doctoral student, who snapped a picture of the paper and forwarded it to former classmate Filiberto Gomez. Arguing the word “illegals” is bigoted and dehumanizing — as well as pointing to the use of the phrase “illegal aliens” in the first line of the story — Gomez posted the photo to his website and announced a call to action. “The Santa Barbara News-Press is notorious for their poor headlines but this time they have gone too far!” the posting reads. “Help us tell the Santa Barbara News-Press to not be offensive!”
Nearly 450 people have registered for the protest and more than 1,700 have signed the petition. The outcry was detailed in a story published Monday in the politics section of Cosmopolitan.com. It’s also been written about here and here.
Gomez and others noted that the Associated Press (AP) dropped the phrase “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook in April 2013. The change has been adopted by most media outlets around the country and was considered a significant victory for immigration-reform advocates. Those that still use the term tend to be conservative organizations, like Fox News, the Daily Caller, and the Washington Times.
“The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person,” explained AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll in 2013. “Instead, it tells users that ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally. Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.” Carroll noted that the change is similar to saying someone was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of calling them a “schizophrenic.” The AP has been working to rid its stylebook of labels, she said.
It’s not clear how strictly the News-Press adheres to AP standards. Phone messages left with three different editors have not been returned. Regardless, Gomez said, the change has been so widely adopted that it’s “confusing and upsetting” why the paper would “go back to using something that has been identified as inaccurate and offensive.” The article’s author, Taylor Knopf, has been on the receiving end of much of the criticism. She’s directed complaints to her editor, recently tweeting: “To respond to all tweets regarding my recent story about AB 60: personally, I agree w the Associated Press. Email the editor w complaints.” Knopf also said she didn’t want her byline on the article.
Gomez said he was heartened but not necessarily surprised by the responses he’s received, and he hopes to use the energy to facilitate bigger discussions about how Latinos are treated on the South Coast and across the United States. “Santa Barbara is thought of as very liberal, but this is how we get represented, and that’s not okay,” he said. Gomez also referenced some of the controversies that have plagued the News-Press over the last eight years, and he said of the petition and the 6 p.m. protest, “The folks in Santa Barbara know the News-Press is a disaster, but this is a chance for others to see how unethical they really are.”
Tuesday afternoon, PODER (People Organizing for the Defense and Equal Rights of Santa Barbara Youth) issued a press release condemning the headline and calling out Santa Barbara media as a whole for its “history of biased reporting that presents a less than objective analysis of the question of race and class in Santa Barbara.” The group demanded a correction and said it will boycott the News-Press until one is issued.
Santa Barbara City College student and PODER member Savanah Maya said while area reports may not always show such blatant racism, there is often a “lack of acknowledgement of a little less than half of the population. … It’s a very prevalent community, and it’s typically not represented correctly.” Maya lamented that there isn’t a major Spanish-speaking media outlet in Santa Barbara and said the broadcasts and stories that do run are commonly full of misinformation and biases. “The Independent has done a better job, but the standard has still been set low for being equal,” she said.
Maya, who was born and raised in Santa Barbara, admitted the correct way to refer to immigrant and Latino populations, whether they entered the country legally or illegally, can be “complicated.” PODER’s own press release refers to “undocumented immigrant workers” while the AP stylebook shies away from the word “undocumented.” So what language should news writers use? Maya said she and PODER would prefer if people weren’t labeled or categorized and instead described in more individualized, less stigmatizing terms.
Santa Barbara has a long history of racism, Maya went on, mainly because its “movers and shakers” haven’t commanded different. PODER had to fight for a translator during recent gang injunction deliberations at City Hall, she claimed. But now, the city is starting to rally against injustice in earnest. Maya credited the nationwide movements around racial equality spurred by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and said communities in general are “losing a tolerance for racism.” “The masses are moving, we’re in solidarity with each other, and we’re going to make a change,” she said.