What should journalists call people who are living in the United States unlawfully? Research at the University of Memphis reveals that 9 out of 10 times, journalists use the labels “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien.”

But Jose Antonio Vargas had a different message for the journalists, students and educators gathered at the Online News Association conference in San Francisco last week:

Vargas argued that describing someone who is in the country without proper papers as an “illegal” is “legally inaccurate” because it is “a civil offense, not a criminal one.”

His recommendation: undocumented immigrant. Notably, when the Supreme Court spoke out on Arizona’s immigration case earlier this year, the ruling used “nonjudgmental language.”

From Rethinking Design to Driving Traffic with Gossip

Vargas was the first speaker at the two-day conference to advocate a change in newsroom practices. He would be joined by others, from rethinking design (use models like Disney and Apple) to understanding the conflict between driving traffic with gossip and traditional journalistic values.

Immigration wasn’t the only politically charged issue on the agenda. Panelists on Saturday took a deep dive into tech policy, from how the IRS has dragged its feet at granting non-profit status to indy news organizations to the implications of CISPA/SOPA and a surveillance culture on news gathering and consumption.

An oft-tweeted session featured the social media team behind the Mars Rover Curiosity. NASA also provided unscheduled excitement when the space shuttle Endeavor buzzed the Golden Gate Bridge.

On the technology news front, Twitter CEO Dick Costello told Emily Bell that an account holder should be able to download all of her tweets by year’s end. And a free curation tool is in the works.

Google’s YouTube news manager, Olivia Wu, and WNYC senior editor for data news, John Keefe, shared tools and tips for reporting election night results. Storify’s Burt Herman explained how the API can be used to curate Pinterest entries.

The conference wrapped up with its annual awards banquet. General excellence winners: PBS Frontline, ProPublica and the New York Times.

The 2013 conference will be held in Atlanta. Below is my Storify of all the highlights from this year’s show.


Kathy Gill has been online since the early 1990s, having discovered CompuServe before Marc Andreessen launched Mosaic at the University of Illinois in 1993. In 1995, she built and ran one of the first political candidate websites in Washington state. Gill then rode the dot-com boom as a communication consultant who could speak web, until the crash. In 2001, she began her fourth career as an academic, first teaching techies about communications and now teaching communicators about technology. At the University of Washington, she teaches undergraduates as well as classes in the Master of Communication in Digital Media program. For almost five years, she covered politics for About.com; for three years, she covered agriculture.

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