Despite a growing movement towards using person-first language when describing people involved with the justice system, even progressive newsrooms that are publicly grappling with their racist history continue to use dehumanizing language when reporting on crime and justice.
Person-first language is a linguistic prescription that puts a person’s humanity above other identity labels, with the intent of avoiding marginalization or dehumanization. It first gained traction in the disability rights and medical spheres, where disabilities and diagnoses were often conflated with identities. Advocates began to shy away from labels such as “diabetic” in favor of “person with diabetes.”
Person-first language has subsequently been used in many areas of society, including justice reporting. Advocates and some publications have adopted terminology such as “formerly incarcerated person” and “justice-involved youth” to replace “ex-con,” “felon,” and “juvenile delinquent.”
From the adoption of person-first language to shifts away from bureaucratic euphemisms, what is considered acceptable language in justice reporting is rapidly evolving. Sometimes it takes a few more words to avoid dehumanizing labels, which can feel uncomfortable for journalists who are taught to eliminate unnecessary words and to simplify their reporting. But experts agree that words have real-world consequences for both public perceptions and people’s behavior.
Advocates aren’t the only ones saying so. Experts from corrections and academia are sounding the alarm that language can even influence public safety.
Researchers have established a clear link between popular media representation and the perceived threat of specific groups. The “superpredator” myth is a prominent example of this. Used primarily as a descriptor for young Black men, the term emerged from academic literature during a period when violent crimes committed by juveniles were at a peak in the 1980s and 1990s. The term was popularized by politicians and the press and stoked public fears about violent youth roaming the streets.
But the use of stereotypes and dehumanizing descriptions in the media not only impacts how the public views people involved in the justice system; it also impacts how incarcerated individuals see themselves. Negative stereotypes of people involved in the justice system can also reinforce barriers to employment and housing, which increases the likelihood they’ll return to crime.
A large body of research on labeling theory has shown that people internalize negative descriptions, which in turn can shape their behavior. As one young man we interviewed said, “If you call me an animal, I will act like an animal.”
In August, a Los Angeles Times headline announced that “California is releasing some murderers due to COVID-19.” There was an outcry from reform advocates on social media and, shortly after, the wording was changed to “Amid COVID-19, California releases some inmates doing time for murder.”
This example from the Los Angeles Times speaks to how the words journalists use often reduce humans to the crimes they commit. While the publication did change the headline, justice advocates say the problem was that they published it in the first place.
“They moved to person-first language, but it’s still a headline geared towards denigrating a certain group of individuals,” said Dyjuan Tatro, government affairs officer at the Bard Prison Initiative, a college-in-prison program in New York state. Tatro is formerly incarcerated and was recently featured in the PBS documentary “College Behind Bars.”
Los Angeles Times investigative crime writer Richard Winton said there was no major newsroom discussion of the headline in question. “The second headline is a better headline, from a professional point of view,” said Winton, who shared a byline on the story. “It was more clear.”
Descriptors are often more clear than labels. Winton said the change was likely made at the copy desk. It’s also worth noting that reporters don’t always write their own headlines.
The movement toward person-first language in the justice space has been an attempt to address these issues. Despite evidence indicating the benefits, there is resistance. Some equate language change to superficial pandering designed only to appease readers, not motivate substantive change. Emphasizing language usage is seen by some as performative political correctness.
In 2016, the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy research center, became one of the first organizations focused on justice to use person-first language in their own research and policy briefs. They also pushed for a report from the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections — which included leading academics, bureau of prison officials, judges, and prosecutors — to avoid using terms such as “offender” and “inmate.” While it took some convincing, eventually all nine members of the federal task force agreed.
The pushback came from the editorial team. “Our professional writers and copy editors were freaking out,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “It’s going to be too long. It”s going to sound redundant. It’s not going to flow.”
La Vigne said she also spoke with representatives of media outlets who were concerned that person-first language would take too many words and didn’t really make a difference.
Keith Woods, chief diversity officer at NPR and former dean of faculty at Poynter, said journalists have historically parroted the language of law enforcement, prosecutors and prison officials and “thrown it into their journalism.” Similarly, WNYC called out the media for “embracing euphemisms designed by government to change the subject.” They specifically targeted the passive-voice “officer-involved shooting,” which has taken on new relevance this year with the murder of George Floyd. The phrase was never as precise as the active voice “police shot” but until a recent reckoning, it was standard practice for journalists to repeat whatever bureaucratic euphemism had been used in official statements.
This has created a pattern where journalists often repeat the dehumanizing language used by the justice system and, in turn, shape public perceptions of crime and “criminals.” In contrast, by using humanizing language, journalists have the opportunity to more accurately depict those involved in the justice system and to portray them as complex individuals whose identities cannot be reduced to one-word labels.
Last year, proposed legislation in New York sought to amend thousands of pages of state law to replace “inmate” with “incarcerated individual.” A few state departments of corrections have also tried to adopt more neutral terminology, such as Oregon referring to its prison population as “adults in custody.”
John Wetzel is a senior corrections official who has publicly spoken out about the importance of shifting language. After conversations with La Vigne and others, Wetzel, who is secretary of corrections for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, has replaced “offender” with “reentrant.” As he wrote in a 2016 Washington Post editorial, the change was more than performative political correctness. As he put it, “Frankly, negative labels work against the expectation of success and are inconsistent with what we’re trying to achieve in our corrections policy: less crime and fewer victims.”
Wetzel told Poynter that officials need to use every tool available to them — including language — to help improve outcomes as people return to their communities. “Reentry is difficult enough without negative labels,” he said. “I don’t think there is a context when you use a pejorative term for someone that it benefits them.” And to reiterate Woods’ point, pejorative labels from the justice system work their way into headlines.
In contrast, federal governance under the Trump administration explicitly steered its agencies away from more humanizing language; language guidance published in 2017 advised staff to avoid “system-involved or justice-involved youth,” and instead instructed them to refer to “youth in the system,” “offender” or “at-risk youth.”
Language evolution that comes from within institutions is powerful, said Adnan Khan, the formerly incarcerated executive director of the nonprofit Re:Store Justice. He said that having a corrections official champion the use of person-first language sends a stronger message than if only advocates are pushing for it. Language changes are often harbingers of culture change, he said.
Person-first language represents a new approach to justice reporting rather than a simple “find and replace” word substitution. It requires a fundamental shift in how we describe the people on which we report — one that emphasizes describing over labeling. “I would push journalists to get away from labels of any sort as much as possible and become more insistent on describing, more fully, the people they’re talking about,” Woods said.
But where is the line between meaningful change and performative political correctness in language use?
Morgan Godvin, one of the authors of this article, is formerly incarcerated. She used the word “inmate” as a descriptor of her status while in prison, never considering its dehumanizing intent or the fact that she had a choice. Other people incarcerated with her referred to themselves as felons, criminals and convicts; these labels were stated matter-of-factly. From being shouted and cursed at by correctional officers to being referred to as a number without a name, she was never able to critically analyze language and how it was or was not enabling other mechanisms of institutional dehumanization. Nor did she consider the fact she and those around her were internalizing the language used against them.
It is commonplace for her friends to refer to themselves as felons, especially when citing barriers that are preventing their advancement. Anecdotally, she sees how this process of label internalization causes a feeling of profound resignation and hopelessness, a real-life example of labeling theory. Now having attained an education, she encourages everyone to reject the term “felon” and all the negative connotations that go along with it. Circumstances — especially the lack of higher education in prisons — will invariably affect language perceptions and usage.
This tension between how people self-identify and what is widely regarded as the most acceptable term (read: the most “politically correct” or, in trendier terms, “woke”) is not confined to person-first language. Latinx has been criticized because though it may be an inclusive term, it is rarely how people self-identify. Unfortunately, emphasizing respectful language that is both inclusive and humanizing while still being accurate and precise is relatively new territory in mainstream journalism. Journalists also want to avoid just parroting advocates.
A 2016 Marshall Project editorial confronted this topic. “As journalists …we tend to resist the banishing of words, especially words that are accurate, precise, and well understood,” wrote Bill Keller, Marshall’s founding editor-in-chief. “We cringe from euphemisms that amount to badges of political correctness.”
He urged descriptors over labels whenever possible. “What I tell my staff is to minimize the use of labels when referring to an individual; individuals have names, and nobody should be defined solely by the worst thing he or she has done.”
Still, he acknowledged that sometimes — and especially within the limited space of a headline — it may not be feasible.
Even within labeling, there is a spectrum of harm. Labels that convey an active state while someone is incarcerated such as “prisoner” and “inmate” are more tolerated than labels that imply permanent identity status, such as “felon” or “convict.” Woods is especially critical of identity status labels because “they imply humanity is secondary.” The impetus to avoid such status labels is clear when reporting on marginalized people. The use of active-state labels remains murkier and will continue to be something that journalists and society grapple with as a whole. (On a practical level, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid using “inmate” when citing official documents.)
Khan sees the adoption of humanizing language, whether by corrections officials or by journalists, as a step in the right direction. But he implored journalists to think beyond language use and into bigger questions that could influence reporting. “Has the culture of the newsroom changed? Is it diverse?”
Justice reporting is inextricably linked to race and racism. National statistics indicate that a disproportionate number of incarcerated people are people of color, owing to extreme racial disparities within the legal system. Racialized language has a long history of permeating journalism, especially in shaping perceptions of crime. Tatro, Bard Prison Initiative’s government affairs officer, reiterated that American racism has deep roots in linguistic tropes, a timely reminder that language has never been neutral.
At a time when newsrooms across the country are reckoning with their lack of diversity, racial disparities have become a part of the conversation within newsrooms.
“I think writers, especially white writers, have to realize that they are not immune from stereotypes,” Tatro said. “Journalists writing about these issues have to be really aware of their positionality. The way we write about individuals comes out of the way that we think about and process the world.”
Veteran journalists, people with lived experience, and advocates advised journalists covering justice to center people’s humanity, strive for accuracy and precision, and not reduce people to the worst thing they’ve ever done. Person-first language is not mutually exclusive with our journalistic commitment to truth-telling and accuracy.
“Journalism has never had the need or even the mandate to label people,” Woods said. “Our job is to report what happened.”
Although the immediate effect of making the switch may not be tangible, researchers, advocates, and some corrections officials say the switch is not superficial. There is a fine line between precise reporting and performative wokeness, but above all, words still matter as a first step towards changing public perceptions. As Woods put it, “We can motivate substantive societal change by advocating for humanizing language.”
Editor’s note: Morgan Godvin is a contributor to The Marshall Project. Charlotte West was a 2019 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Center on Media, Crime and Justice.