Readers' Representative Journal

A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards

Category: August 2011

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Are they illegal immigrants or undocumented students? Both

California Dream Act rally Immigration is such a hot-button issue that even the words used to write about the topic get debated.

"Illegal" and "undocumented" are two of the terms that are often questioned. Reader R.J. Johnson of North Hollywood found them both in an Aug. 24 article about a rally in support of the California Dream Act, which would allow college students who are illegal immigrants to qualify for public financial aid.

"In the lead-in to Teresa Watanabe's article, the words used are 'the undocumented.' But in the actual article, Watanabe uses the phrase 'illegal immigrants,'" Johnson wrote.

"L.A. Times, which is it?"

Well, it doesn't have to be one or the other.

The Times' Style and Usage Guide advocates the use of "illegal immigrants" when referring to "citizens of foreign countries who have come to the country with no passport, visa or other document to show that they are entitled to visit, work or live in the United States."

It continues: "The term 'undocumented immigrant' is acceptable as a synonym for 'illegal immigrant' under certain conditions, such as when a form of the word 'illegal' already appears in a sentence."

And that's just how Watanabe used the terms in her opening paragraph:

Scores of students, teachers and other advocates for illegal immigrants are launching rallies, phone drives and petition campaigns this week for what they see as their best hope to win access to public financial aid for undocumented college students.

Other widely used stylebooks agree with the usage. The Associated Press stylebook, which is taught in journalism schools and used across the news industry, has a similar entry. The New York Times stylebook's ruling is more limited, advocating the use of "illegal immigrant" but calling "undocumented" a euphemism.

Reader Sue Martin thought both terms were wrong. She wrote: "Regarding correct English, you refer to these students as illegal 'immigrants.' The correct term is 'aliens.' Writers for the L.A. Times continuously make this mistake."

But the L.A. Times' stylebook doesn’t consider it a mistake. It advises against using the term "alien" unless it's in a direct quote.

The New York Times' stylebook is more explicit. It says that "alien," while technically correct, "often conveys overtones of menace or strangeness."

The L.A. Times' first stylebook, in 1979, did advocate the use of "illegal aliens," calling it "the simplest term." However, by 1995, the ruling had changed to "illegal immigrant."

Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, who leads the newsroom's style committee, said that "illegal immigrant" is "the preferred neutral, unbiased term that will work in almost all uses."

"We do think through these things at length," Fuhrmann said. "We tend to reflect what we're hearing from our sources and our readers."

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Students rally in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 23 in support of AB 131, the California Dream Act. Credit: Genero Molina / Los Angeles Times


On Twitter: Our mistake, your amusement

Ang Lee

Earlier today, our main Twitter account, @latimes, mistakenly tweeted a three-letter bit of nonsense. No link, no nothin'; it simply read "ang."

Before we had a chance to delete the offending tweet, though, many of our followers had seen and responded to it. Here are a few of our favorite responses:

-- Lindsay Barnett, @latimessocial

Photo: Director Ang Lee. Credit: Kin Cheung / Associated Press

Here we go again: Kadafi vs. Gadhafi vs. el-Qaddafi

Moammar Kadafi The leader of Libya is once again making front-page headlines. And there's nothing like large type to make people notice that The Times doesn't spell his name the way other news organizations do.

The man we call Moammar Kadafi is Muammer el-Qaddafi in the New York Times, Moammar Gaddafi in the Washington Post and Moammar Gadhafi in Associated Press articles.

It’s no wonder readers think the L.A. Times has a mistake. But all of the spellings are transliterations from Arabic, and so all are interpretations.

Many news organizations, including the L.A. Times, tackled the question in February. You can check out what Time magazine and the Christian Science Monitor had to say, too.

We began using Kadafi in 1969, when the rebel leader seized power, under guidance from our Middle East correspondent at the time. He advised that the sound that begins the leader’s name was best translated as a “k”. (That also explains our spelling of Koran vs. AP’s Quran.)

Some of the discussion on Twitter:

Continue reading »

More thoughts on Jerry Brown's grammatical gaffe

“Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?”  --Clarence Darrow

Gov. Jerry Brown This is a postscript to Saturday's “Postscript” column. A post-Postscript, if you will.

In the column, reader Gene Axelrod questioned whether Gov. Jerry Brown, describing his fear at seeing a child at the edge of a steep drop-off at Yosemite National Park, actually said: "If they slipped, they would have went right over."

And, Axelrod wondered, did The Times "forget to insert the signal [sic] after 'went' "?

The discussion led to some follow-up questions and comments from readers.

Tony Newhall of Valencia saw a missed opportunity to explain what was wrong with Brown's quote:

"Shouldn't you have added a short sentence saying Mr. Axelrod was bothered that the governor used the past tense 'went' when he should have used the past participle 'gone' (as in 'they would have gone right over.')?"

And two readers thought the discussion ignored a pronoun problem.

"What about he/they?" asked Walter Hall. "Wasn't it equally grammatically egregious for the governor to switch from third person singular (looking at him) to third person plural (If they slipped)?"

Brian Fodera of Los Angeles agreed. "So much thought and ink was devoted to whether the governor should have gone with 'gone'  instead of 'went' that the governor's twice referring to a young boy as 'they' managed to slip through without remark," he wrote.

They’re both good points. The quote was a mess, grammatically.

Fodera added: "Perhaps the governor's quote should have read: 'It made me shake just looking at him. It's dangerous. If they [sic] slipped, they [sic] would have went [sic] right over.' "

Speaking of "sic," Newhall also suggested that a definition would have been helpful. He's right.

From Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition: "used within brackets, [sic], to show that a quoted passage, esp. one containing some error or something questionable, is precisely reproduced."

However, as Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann noted in the column, The Times' style and usage guide advises against the use of "sic" unless it is part of the material being quoted, such as a transcript. "If it is necessary to note an error in quoted matter, it's best to simply point it out," the stylebook entry says.

"Our avoidance of the term is in keeping with our general approach of not altering quotes or interfering through the overuse of brackets," Fuhrmann said.

Giuseppe Mirelli of Los Angeles was concerned that The Times had downplayed the grammatical error.

"It is quite alarming that an editor of a national newspaper finds that the improper use of verb tenses to be inconsequential when indeed it is consequential and imperative for clarity in expository writing," he wrote. "Our language is not evolving, as many claim it to be the case when a malapropism is admonished. Our language is devolving at a rapid pace thanks to educated people who marginalize good grammar."


Letters to the Editor: Good grammar in the paper

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at his Los Angeles office in June. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times


Readers respond to Geraldine Baum's 9/11 journal


Many readers were moved by the story of New York bureau reporter Geraldine Baum's 9/11 journal  and her reminiscences about that day.

Baum learned about the attacks after dropping off her children at school. As she tells it, she didn't have a notebook with her, or proper shoes. Her notes scribbled into the brown leather journal -- quickly handed to her by her husband before she rushed toward the World Trade Center -- relate her observations, fear and even flashes of anger. 

This summer, she used those notes to try to retrace her steps, and she found a couple of the people she'd encountered on Sept. 11, 2001.

Several readers wrote to say they'd been brought to tears by the article. Others wanted to share their own stories and memories of that day.

A sampling:

"I found your 9/11 piece unbelievably moving. You talk about other people's courage, but being a good reporter, you ignore your own. Thanks for having the guts to keep moving on that terrible day, and for being able to re-create it with such force, grace, and admirable lack of sentimentality."
--Louise Farr

Continue reading »

In an ungrammatical quote, where's the [sic]?

Jerry BrownGene Axelrod of Huntington Beach was reading Tony Barboza's front page story Monday about dangers at Yosemite National Park when he reached this quote from Gov. Jerry Brown describing his reaction to a child standing near the edge of a steep drop-off in the park:

"It made me shake just looking at him. It's dangerous," Brown told the Associated Press. "If they slipped, they would have went right over."

The grammatical gaffe prompted Axelrod to write to The Times:

"Is our governor so uneducated and inarticulate that he actually said, 'If they slipped, they would have went right over'? Or did you forget to insert the signal [sic] after 'went'? ... Sorry, but the continuing degradation of our language annoys me."

The short answer, according to Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, is that The Times generally does not use "sic" in such circumstances.

The Times’ style and usage guide advises against the use of "sic" unless it is part of the material being quoted, such as in a transcript. "If it is necessary to note an error in quoted matter, it's best to simply point it out," the stylebook entry says.

Fuhrmann added, "Our avoidance of the term is in keeping with our general approach of not altering quotes or interfering through the overuse of brackets."

"From my reading, I would say it's rare to see 'sic' in an American newspaper."

Barboza noted that people don’t always speak in grammatically correct sentences. "Yet," he said, "a big part of our job as journalists is to report comments exactly how they are spoken. In this case I figured most people would read it and understand what he meant."

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the standard outside the newspaper industry, might support Axelrod’s advocacy of "sic." It advises: "The device should be used only where it is relevant to call attention to such matters (and especially where readers might otherwise assume the mistake is in the transcription rather than the original) or where paraphrase or silent correction is inappropriate."

But Fuhrmann said, "I'm not convinced that Brown's relatively minor grammatical error was so notable that it merited being singled out."


Usage: 'Latino' preferred over 'Hispanic'

Expletives: A big ... deal

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Gov. Jerry Brown and wife Anne Gust Brown at Yosemite in July. Credit: Anne Gust Brown via Twitter in July: No summer slowdown

A memo from Managing Editor/Online Jimmy Orr about traffic in July:

More explosive growth at We're busting myths (summers and weekends mean slow traffic), we're setting records, and we have seen unparalleled growth for the last five months.

Great Times journalism continued to drive readership in July, with an able assist from the new ways we are creating to engage our SoCal community.  As a result of increasingly aggressive online reporting, posting stories earlier and more frequently, innovations in storytelling and presentation, and the most compelling content online, we once again sit atop the charts for growth among the top five newspaper sites.

ComScore's numbers were released last week, and again showed the highest increase in unique visitors, year over year, with an impressive 22.5% showing. On the heels of last month's 22.8% increase (also putting us at No. 1), we’ve leapfrogged the Washington Post and are locked in as the second-most-read newspaper site in the country. While we enjoyed double-digit growth, the Post grew by 1.6%.

In terms of page views, our internal Omniture numbers recorded a 35.2% increase over July 2010 with 185.5 million. That marks the third-highest trafficked month in the history of the site. And it's not about spikes or singular news events – it's about consistency, as supported by charting the days on which we’ve exceeded 5 million page views:

  • In 2009, we averaged 3 days per month when we exceeded 5 million page views.
  • In 2010, we averaged 3.8 days of topping 5 million page views.
  • In March 2011, we surpassed 5 million page views on 17 days.
  • In April 2011, we topped 5 million page views again on 17 days.
  • In May 2011, we exceeded 5 million page views on 24 days.
  • In June 2011, we hit 5 million-plus on 18 days.
  • And last month we hit a record, surpassing 5 million on 25 days.
Continue reading »

Q&A: Christopher Goffard on the story of Louis Gonzalez III

Christopher Goffard Christopher Goffard's two-part story of Louis Gonzalez III and the horrifying crime of which he was accused captivated readers for two days in June. (Part 1 / Part 2)

As Goffard wrote, Gonzalez was arrested and charged with brutally assaulting his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his child. Readers come to learn that Gonzalez was ultimately exonerated, with the court granting him a rare Declaration of Factual Innocence.

Goffard talked with colleagues about the story, and how he reported and wrote it. Questions from editors and fellow reporters, along with Goffard's responses, follow.

Introduction by Goffard:

The story came as a tip from a source who said, "I have this case that you're not going to believe. It's about an innocent man wrongly accused of a terrible crime, and he spent time in jail for it."

Like you, I get letters every week from "innocent" men at places like San Quentin and Soledad, and they aren't immediately exciting. The source said, "It's also a nasty custody dispute." Now, those are notoriously messy cases that it's usually wise to not get involved in.

Then I saw this document that I had never seen in all my years of covering cops and courts. I spent a lot of my career in courtrooms, and I had never seen a Declaration of Factual Innocence.

Continue reading »

Where were you on 9/11? Readers invited to share stories

Twin-lights With the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks approaching, The Times is asking readers to share their stories about that day.

I still recall Diane Pucin's column several days after the attacks. She wrote that she'd had a seat on the American Airlines flight that hit one of the World Trade Center Towers, but she changed her flight to later in the day. It still gives me chills.

I was scheduled to fly that day, too, on a United Airlines flight from Manchester, N.H., back to Los Angeles. It was Sept. 17 before I was able to get home, on a Boston-to-L.A. flight. The ticket counters at Logan Airport, from which two of the doomed flights had departed, carried sympathy bouquets.

Where were you? What were you doing?

Share your story, and The Times will publish some of them on

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Twin beams of light represent the World Trade Center's towers on the fifth anniversary of the attacks. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times


Behind the lens: Barbara Davidson in Africa


Barbara Davidson's photo on Thursday's front page of a Somali mother sitting with her severely malnourished 1-year-old son caught the eye of a number of readers.

"Best, most real and relevant action of L.A. Times this year," wrote George Thomas of Los Angeles. "PLEASE do more in-depth, real-importance content like this -- SIMPLE pictorial connections like this. What a picture!"

And Sable Crow tweeted, "Speaking of incredible images @latimes, this one stopped me in my tracks."

Davidson described how she wound up covering the famine in Africa, and how she encountered Hawa Barre Osman and her son in a refugee camp in Kenya, in a post on the Framework blog.

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times


A new look for the Saturday Op-Ed page

Opinion8.6 Starting this week, the Saturday editorials and opinion pieces will be consolidated onto a single page.

On the page will be one or two editorials and Patt Morrison's interview column. And instead of a string of letters to the editor, a single letter will be featured and will include a response from a Times reporter or editor.

Op-Ed Editor Sue Horton explained the idea behind the new feature, called "Postscript":

"Susan Brenneman, deputy editor of the op-ed page, had been noticing that we often got letters that seemed to call for responses. But there was no forum in the paper for answering them," Horton said.

"Individual writers or editors or the Readers' Rep would often send a reply, but Susan wondered why we couldn't address some of the issues raised in a more public forum. Starting Saturday, with Postscript, we will be."

The type of letters in mind are those asking Times coverage, op-ed columns or news decisions.

To submit a question for Postscript, send it as you would a Letter to the Editor, to or by using the online form. More details are on the Letters page.

--Deirdre Edgar


Overheard on Twitter: In defense of teachers, wind energy, the Angels

An op-ed column by a charter school teacher in South Los Angeles drew praise this week. Other Twitter users were disappointed about coverage of wind energy and having to search for Angels scores.

The comments, compiled by Ebony Bailey:

Continue reading »
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