The following is my response to Is ‘Illegal Immigrant’ the Right Description? on the Public Editor's Journal blog written by Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the New York Times.
It’s not the single use but the overuse of the term that is the problem. Out of all reported stories about breaking the law, the immigration beat disproportionately uses and repeats law-tinged labels of the perpetrators.
In headlines outside the immigration beat, the "sin" is more often the story, and not the "sinner." I've seen this borne out in my hometown newspaper. Kids killed while breaking the law in a vehicle not meant for on-road use prompt a headline about "golf cart culture," not the kids as wrongdoers. Illegally causing pain to a Tennessee Walking Horse to modify its gait in competition? The headline is about the alleged "soring," not the accused. Medicinal abuse merits an above-the-fold reference to the "pill problem," not "pill poppers." Even stories about overeating at church harp on gluttony, not "gluttons."
No doubt that the outside the immigration context, stories identify perpetrators with terms like "tax evader," "poachers," and "traffic violators." A newsroom should ask itself, however, why those labels appear at such a lower ratio of total word count than the legal labels of immigrants in immigration stories. Once you've seen the difference, it's hard to argue that the difference in justified, much less neutral.
Mallary Tenore's comment about detail and variation in descriptions is instructive. Increasing the use of words like "deportation" or "visa" might add variety. Questioning the redundancy of any given mention of illegality also helps.