The demand for diversity in media representation is increasing among audiences and news organizations. According to a 2020 survey by the Knight Foundation, 69% of Americans believe that representing the diversity of the U.S. population in news coverage is either “very important” or “critical.”
Although the audience’s interest is clear, many people still think that media organizations aren’t performing as well as they should. The Knight Foundation study explains, “A quarter of Americans (25%) think newsrooms are doing ‘very well’ or ‘well,’ while about four-in-ten (37%) think the media is doing ‘poorly’ or ‘very poorly’ in its diversity efforts.”
As news outlets expand their margins of coverage to include more diverse stories, journalists and editors must find the correct language to use in order to maintain sensitivity, and to create accurate representations.
With constant developments in language and identity representation, it is imperative for journalists to keep an eye on them by consulting their sources about how they would like to be labeled. When media workers use dated or problematic terminology in their reporting on marginalized people, they can reinforce negative stereotypes and biases that may cause harm to the populations they are trying to include.
Identity-first vs person-first language
Labels such as “trans person,” “Black person” or “disabled person” are examples of identity-first language. People from marginalized groups may choose to adopt this language as a form of empowerment by reclaiming the labels and experiences that were historically stigmatized.
Person-first language, on the other hand, prioritizes personhood over identity, acknowledging that labels are only a part of the person’s identity. Instead of using a term like disabled person, a person-first approach to language would include terms like “person with a disability.”
The debate between identity-first language and person-first language is ongoing and differs for activists, media organizations and individuals, depending on their respective beliefs.
Marginalized communities often have a strong stance on their preferences. Media workers should allow their subjects to lead them to the correct representation based on self-identification. For example, visibility activists such as Chella Man prefer identity-first language to describe themselves.
Man uses the term “disabled” instead of “person with a disability.” He uses the term “deaf” instead of referring to himself as “someone with a hearing impairment.” To ensure accurate representation, journalists should check in with their subjects before assuming that everyone identifies with the same language.
Since language is ever-evolving and there are numerous intersections of identity that could be subject to marginalization, journalists should consider the full spectrum of the identities of their subjects. Here are some categories to consider when revisiting your vocabulary
Gender and sexuality
Language around gender and sexuality is ever-changing. Contemporary gender discourse, for example, employs the term “transition” instead of more offensive language alternatives used in the past such as “sex change” and “transgender”. Instead of using the terms “birth sex/natal sex,” journalists can use terms such as “assigned sex/sex assigned at birth.”
Unless subjects explicitly discuss their assigned sex, this should not be of focus. Refrain from using terms such as “normal men/women” in contrast to transgender people; journalists should instead utilize the term “cisgender.”
Language has often been used as a tool of racial discrimination and stigma, with many common terms and phrases stemming from racialized violence. Journalists need to be mindful of this, and study the roots of the language they employ.
This includes, again, asking subjects how they self-identify when it comes to race. For example, refrain from saying “Jew” when referring to the preferred “person of Jewish descent.” Use ‘person of color’ instead of “non-white person.”
In order to prevent further stigmatization of people with disabilities, journalists should ask their subjects how they understand themselves, and keep a close eye on language being used in contemporary media.
Journalists should inquire whether their subjects prefer identity-first or person-first language. Some may self-identify as “an amputee” while others may favor “person with an amputation.”
The examples included here are just the tip of the iceberg. Every source should be consulted about the terminology they adopt to describe themselves.
Here are some resources that provide more exhaustive lists of terminology for ethical representation of marginalized groups:
- Inclusive Language Guide from Queen’s University in Canada
- Disability Language Guide from Stanford University
- Gender Inclusive Language, from the United Nations
- Inclusive Language Guide on Race, Ethnicity, & National Origin, from the University of South Carolina Aiken