AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

“Illegitimate” No More   

How my e-mail about a phrase I abhor led to a change in the AP Style Book. Tues., February 14, 2012.

By Julie Drizin
Julie Drizin (jdrizin@jmail.umd.edu)directs the Journalism Center on Children and Families at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

For years, the expression "illegitimate child" has annoyed me like fingernails on a blackboard. It bothered me as a mother and as a journalist. I wondered how reporters, editors and anchors could let this pejorative phrase tumble out of their mouths or onto the page without thinking how it might land.

When I recently heard an NPR host use this archaic term, it was like an electric shock through the radio that spurred me to action. I have worked in public radio for 25 years, and just I couldn't stand by and let it slide. So, I wrote an e-mail and started a conversation and raised a little consciousness along the way. Then, I took the issue to the editors of the AP Stylebook, suggesting that they officially drop the phrase "illegitimate child."

Why? Because it's patriarchal, judgmental and out of touch with reality. But, most of all, it's hurtful to children. The label stigmatizes kids just because their biological parents aren't in a traditional marriage, whether by choice or by default.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 41 percent of children in the U.S. are born to unmarried mothers. That's a lot of babies, and not a single one is "illegitimate." This is the reality in America, whether anyone likes it or not.

It's true that "illegitimate child" isn't used that often, but it still worms its way into stories in print and on air, usually about famous men who get caught having an extramarital affair that produces a child. Some examples: Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Jesse Jackson, Strom Thurmond.

The stylebooks of both the New York Times and Washington Post include entries telling reporters not to use the word "illegitimate" to describe a child. But the AP Stylebook, the standard used in newsrooms and J-schools across the country, had no entry between "illegal immigrant"--another controversial term--and "Illinois."

Until now, that is.

In response to my e-mail, AP Stylebook Editor David Minthorn wrote back, "It's a good point. We're planning an entry in the 2012 edition of the AP Stylebook to discourage use of the term for a child of unmarried parents. Thanks for the suggestion."

The AP has already updated its online stylebook, suggesting that reporters say "the child, whose mother was not married," when it's relevant to the story.

Of course, the AP Stylebook isn't the final word on this issue. That authority belongs to each and every one of us who put words together for a living. We know that our words matter, that words can hurt. Let's stop using the expression "illegitimate children," and let's educate others in our newsrooms who still do. For kids' sake.