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Global Identity

When covering global topics of immigration, nationality and religion, accuracy is important to avoid exclusive and culturally normative language. It is vital to avoid centering ethnocentric perspectives. Always confirm references to international, migrant and religious communities.

In addition, conceptions of national identity can be complex. Consult with your interview subject about how they identify and whether it should be part of the content.

Recognizing what is known and not known to both audience and communicator is important. Ensure details relative to garments, food, language and holidays are accurately represented.

Avoid American-centric terms that could be detrimental to an underrepresented group. 

General information for MSU families with mixed immigration status is available on the Undocumented Student Resources website.

  • When writing about people who are not from the United States, don’t only refer to them as international. Name the country, not just the continent. This helps reduce generalization and creates awareness about parts of the world that are not as commonly known to American audiences. For example, avoid lumping all Asians together as a monolithic group.
  • Don’t confuse national identity with ethnicity or religion. A country or state encompasses people of different ethnicities and/or religions. For example, use “Arab” to refer to someone who speaks Arabic and not as a nationality, and use “Muslim” to refer to a follower of the religion of Islam. Not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs. Similarly, use “Israeli” to refer to a citizen of the state of Israel and use “Jew” or “Jewish person” to refer to an ethnoreligious follower of Judaism. Not all Israelis are Jews, and not all Jews are Israeli.
  • Differentiate between the name of the language and religion and the people. For example, Hindi = language and Hindu = following Hinduism (religious belief); or Islam = religion and Muslim = follower of Islam; or Sikhism/Sikhi/Sikh Dharma = religion and Sikh = follower of Sikhism; or Uyghur = Turkic language/people of Western and Central Asia who are predominantly Muslim.
  • Capitalize the names of religions (and religious followers): Judaism (Jews), Islam (Muslims), Hindu (Hindus), Christian (Christians), etc. Vodou is a religion; do not use “voodoo.”
  • The debate over word choice to describe migrants, immigrants and immigration is often contentious. Humanize people and their experiences with specific language. 
  • Refugee is often used as a blanket term for someone displaced by war, violence or persecution, but there are different categories of displaced people.
  • An immigrant is a person who moves to another country intending to settle there permanently.
  • Migrants are people moving within a country or through another country for reasons beyond conflict and persecution and settlement.
  • Internally displaced people are seeking safety in other parts of their country.
  • Asylum-seekers are people seeking international protection from conflict and persecution.
  • Returnees are people who have returned home after being displaced.
  • Exiles are people who have been thrown out or forced to flee authoritarian regimes.
  • Identifying a student, staff or faculty member as an international person should only be done when the designation is relevant.
  • Refer to “continental United States” instead of “the mainland.”
  • When possible, include accent marks, especially in names of people or places, as they can change pronunciation or meaning. For example, in Spanish when the tilde ~ is placed over Spanish n when pronounced ny, as in señor, or Portuguese a or o as in São Paulo.
  • Ask for the pronunciation of names of people, places and religions or use an online tool.
  • Always use images directly related to the main subject of the communications. If you use archive or stock images, they should be referenced and relevant.
  • Pay special attention to the positioning of headlines in relation to the images used and be aware of playing into existing biases, such as a headline on coronavirus with a photo of East Asian people, which may perpetuate xenophobia.
  • Dehumanizing references to national identity, such as “foreigner,” “alien,” “illegal immigrant,” “illegals,” etc.
  • “Expatriates,” or “expats,” reinforces negative stereotypes, differentiating migrant white-collar workers of western countries from migrants or immigrants from less-westernized countries.
  • Labeling a person as an “illegal immigrant” or “illegal” is not only dehumanizing but also a poor way to describe someone’s migration status. Consider using “undocumented immigrant” or “immigrant who is undocumented.”
  • Do not use “oriental” to refer to Asian nationals and peoples.
  • Avoid charged words and judgmental labels to describe religions and religious communities such as “extremist,” “militant,” “terrorist,” “radical,” “fundamentalist,” “cult”, “sect,” “devout” and “pious.”
  • Avoid the contentious term “Islamist” and instead use the specific name of the group, movement or institution.
  • Avoid references to religious imagery and language. Use terms like “wishing you a wonderful winter/spring break” or “best wishes for the new year."


MSU International Studies and Programs: Globally Inclusive Language and Images Webinar Series (2021-22)

Awareness in Reporting: Reporting on Religion

Best Colleges Conscious Language Guide: Ethnicity, Race and Nationality and Citizenship

Conscious Style Guide: Ethnicity, Race + Nationality

Ethical Journalism Network

Harvard University: The Pluralism Project

National Association of Hispanic Journalists: Cultural Competence Handbook (2020)

Religion Stylebook

The GroundTruth Project: The dos and don’ts of religion reporting (2019)