Language matters: Think before you write

DictionaryWhat does “elderly” mean to you? Is 60 “elderly?” Cyndi Lauper and Tony Blair, both 60, probably would not agree. Is 80 “elderly?” Perhaps, but why use the word at all? Simply state a person’s age.

What does “inner city” or “urban” signify to you? Probably not a Manhattan high rise along Central Park, although that location is urban and in the inner city.

Words can convey subtle and not-so-subtle meanings, depending on their context. “Inner city” often is a code word for a neighborhood of poor people of color. But using it to mean only that is inaccurate and unfair.

In news reports, we read and hear these types of descriptors all the time. I would argue that their use constitutes lazy journalism.

What about people who are in the U.S. without official documents? In 2011, SPJ approved a resolution that urged journalists to stop using the terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant.”

After the resolution passed, some accused the organization of having a political agenda. But, as SPJ has pointed out, this is a matter of accuracy. People without the proper paperwork have not been convicted of any crime. Because our constitution guarantees innocence until guilt is proven in court, these people may not be ruled “illegal” by journalists or anyone else except a judge or jury. In addition, a person cannot be “illegal.”

As journalists, we should use the words we actually mean rather than writing in code. On the word “elderly,” the Associated Press Stylebook has this to say: “Use this word carefully and sparingly. Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the story.” List people’s ages, not judgmental descriptors.

Avoid using code words such as “inner city” or even “upscale.” When describing a neighborhood, research facts about that neighborhood rather than giving generalizations. Stereotypes are hard to break, but we can start working to fight them today.

Our own SPJ Code of Ethics states: “Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.”

It’s an easy rule to follow if we think before we write.

Photo by Greeblie, courtesy Creative Commons License. Image by Denelson83, courtesy Creative Commons GFDL.

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