How the AP Slanted Border Coverage to Hide the Crisis

Wire service ditched 'border surge' after facing activist pressure

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May 18, 2021

Typically, news organizations rush to cover crises, real or perceived. The Associated Press has taken a different tack, using its influential style guide to play down the human drama unfolding at the southern border.

While internal Customs and Border Protection documents repeatedly refer to an immigration "surge" at the border, according to records reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon, the AP recommends journalists no longer use such descriptions to avoid offense and maintain supposed "neutrality." Other documents, circulated internally throughout Customs and Border Protection in May, instruct officials on processing "the surge of undocumented individuals as efficiently as possible."

The move by AP, a response to left-wing activists who demanded gentler language from reporters when covering immigration, fundamentally changed how newsrooms across the country covered the Biden administration's response to a historical influx of migrants in the president's first 100 days in office. A range of outlets, from local newspapers to national publications like the Washington Post, look to the AP for language guidance.

The AP pressed news outlets in March to "avoid imagery conjuring war or natural disaster, which could portray migrants as a negative, harmful influence. Avoid emotive words like onslaught, tidal wave, flood, inundation, surge, invasion, army, march, sneak, and stealth." But Customs and Border Protection officials told the Free Beacon that they hold weekly meetings they call "surge meetings" to discuss ways to process the thousands of migrants flooding into the country.

The use of the word "surge" in immigration-related stories was commonplace across a multitude of publications, including the AP itself, in the early days of the border crisis but drew criticism from activists as the Biden administration sought to dispel the idea that it is grappling with a full-blown crisis. America's largest wire service—and the standard-bearer for journalistic style through the AP Stylebook—bowed to the pressure campaign.

A March 25 Washington Post op-ed by the editorial director of the pro-immigration site Futuro Media revealed that AP changed its directive at the demands of activists. Julio Varela said in his column he complained to the AP about the use of words like "surge" in its immigration coverage, suggesting news outlets use "entering," "crossing the border," and "increase" instead.

The AP told Varela his complaint came at the perfect time: Editors there were already "discussing word choices internally" and just assembled a memo addressing concerns by Latino activists. Varela, pleased with the news, called on the rest of the media to follow suit lest they be accused of using a "dehumanizing term."

"The AP deserves recognition for moving in the right direction," the author wrote. "I urge all reporters, TV producers, and editors in newsrooms all over the United States to pay close attention to the words they use in their coverage."

Shortly thereafter, left-wing members of Congress such as New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.) told supporters that using the word "surge" is a "white supremacist idea."

The AP's recommendations were adopted by news organizations such as Politico, which asked its staff, among other things, to no longer describe the unprecedented flood of illegal immigrants to the southern border as a "crisis."

At the time of the AP's new guidance, the United States saw unaccompanied migrant children cross the border at levels not seen in decades, according to data provided from Customs and Border Protection. The agency said it saw a more than 70 percent increase in illegal border crossings in March compared with the previous month.

The AP did not respond to a request for comment.

President Joe Biden called the situation on the border a "crisis" on April 17, although the White House backtracked two days later with an unnamed official telling CNN "there is no change in position" and that "children coming to our border … is not a crisis."

The AP's March directive follows a pattern where the organization regularly takes the side of left-wing activists with its news coverage. In 2013, the AP ordered its reporters to stop using the term "illegal immigrant"; the agency instead adopted the term "undocumented migrant" preferred by liberal activists. As the country saw waves of destruction and looting in its cities last summer, the organization suggested outlets opt for "milder terms" like "unrest" when describing riots.

"Focusing on riots and property destruction rather than underlying grievance has been used in the past to stigmatize," the AP wrote.

The AP faces questions over its relationship with Hamas following an Israeli military strike on an office building its journalists shared with the Islamic terrorist group.

"We are shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP's bureau and other news organizations in Gaza," AP president and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement. He also denied anyone within the organization knew members of Hamas leased office space in the building.