When journalists and editors pick the wrong words or use phrasing loaded with unconscious bias, there can be ramifications ranging from mere confusion to misrepresentation. Both of which are reasons to 'zoom out' and consider whether this can be changed.
There is more to language than words, said Karen Yin, editor of Conscious Style Guide. She runs a website and newsletter which encourages writers to think critically about their choice of words and the impact it can have.
"As an editor, I’ve developed a lot of tricks for catching errors, but what can you do to catch bias? That is not as simple as a mechanical error," explained Yin.
"The reason people don’t catch a lot of the biased language is that we are trained to look at language at a word level."
She uses 'zoom levels' to look past terminology and see the bigger picture of parity, portrayal, framing and representation.
"You can have a book that does not use any insensitive language or offensive terminology or anything which is ‘wrong’, but it could still be incredibly biased and misrepresent people, it can portray people in stereotypical ways," she said.
How exactly? It can happen in the words, sentences and stories selected by writers, which can be individually examined as you zoom out.
On a 'word level', it might be attaching race as a description of Black people, but not White people. On a 'series level', it could be looking closely at your selection of stories in terms of what has been marginalised or affected by disproportionate contexts.
"I would even say it starts when stories are assigned to you. Why did you choose to cover this community?"
Correcting our phrasing is a good start but Yin warned that any checklist of right and wrong phrases should not be accepted at face-value.
"I would like to ask journalists to find out why it applies to them. How can you build your bridge between the topic and your readers?" she asked.
"Focusing on terminology does help because that is part of the bridge-building."
Dialogue is key and while there is no utopia where journalists use perfect terminology, we can improve the way we use words.
"Accept that you are going to offend some people some of the time. Trying to avoid offence is not the goal, learn about these tools for conscious language and do your best," she explained.
Yin is armed with an advisory council that provides differing viewpoints on a lot of the editorial decisions. She encouraged others to follow suit.
"I cannot stress enough the importance of surrounding yourself with people who are capable enough, and willing to, answer questions you have about fair depictions, things you’ve overlooked, and changing intersections," she said.
"I’ve been on the receiving end of harmful language and harmful language is not limited to just being offended or disagreeing with characterisations or communities I’m tied to.
"It also affects laws that are created, it affects violence and employment, whether you go past your initial stereotypes or biases about an interviewee. It goes so deep, it’s about our lives."
This one word can be problematic for journalists to use.
"I have my problems with the word diversity, and it’s because there's this idea that once you have achieved it, you can stop and it’s all good. The truth is diversity does not mean equality," she said.
"Take the example of a high school. The students are racially diverse but is it equal? Are there still students who have more advantages or privileges than others? Do they all have a voice?"
"I believe in using words as teaching moments. In fact, I believe in using the wrong words, so you can follow up and say ‘I don’t know what the word is’. Why not be honest and talk about the uncertainty of these terms?"
So diversity should be distinguished between oft-cited synonyms 'equality' and 'inclusivity'. Yin said there is a need to create a dialogue about the differences, consider when each word applies and propose alternatives rather than trying to control language.
This is not something you will see in every style guide, but something observed in Black media outlets like Essence, which can be employed by any other title.
You may have noticed that within this article, the words Black and White have been capitalised when referring to race. This was done to observe this recommendation.
This distinction helps to clarify whether the writer is talking about colour or race, which are too often conflated.
Capitalising these words, just as is done for nationalities and racial groups, like Russian or Hispanic, makes both grammatical sense and shows respect.
"You could say ‘Karen has black hair’, but what if you were talking about the hair of Black people, so there is a distinction to be made, it just makes language more clear," she said.
"We use capitals for all other racial groups, why are we lower-casing these groups?"
"In the Chinese culture, there is a tremendous amount of respect for people who are older. I would like to look at myself and other people as we all age and find respect and beauty in that, and not overvalue youth or attribute negativity to ageing," Yin explained.
It is a term that American beauty magazine Allure banned in 2017 for similar reasons. Other than following suit, Yin said to simply attribute it clearly as a company term, or saying 'so-called', which can then be contextualised. Also, there is simply no such thing as 'anti-ageing' as the ageing process cannot be stopped, paused or reversed.
In the UK, we tend to use the word BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic). In the US, POC (Person of Colour) is the more frequent catch-all phrase. The issue here is that when people say ‘ethnic’, as in ‘ethnic food’ or ‘ethnic media’, according to Yin, they really mean non-White.
While having individual interpretations of these words is fine, she said it can also lead to confusion, so substituting terms is not helpful. Journalists should instead create the time and space to establish and clarify what is meant by these terms from the offset.
"I don’t believe in banning words. So if you use the word ‘ethnic’, just explain what you mean because it’s very confusing. For similar reasons, when you say sex or gender, explain what you mean by those terms because gender can mean identity or expression," she said.
This euphemism sensationalises what is often really a serious crime.
"Depending on what you are talking about, you should probably just state it factually," she advised.
"A scandal doesn’t characterise the crime at all. When you are talking about rape or molestation, just because it can be scandalous, doesn’t mean that the term represents it fairly. I always think am I doing a disservice to a community by using this terminology over another.
"I also look at a community that is ‘othered’ or marginalised, and whether they have been historically marginalised. That means I have more of a responsibility to get it right."
There can be numerous pitfalls when covering poverty and this turn of phrase is one of them. Yin said not only is it vague and ambiguous, but it can also fuel stereotypes.
"Whenever you are painting something with a large brush, it is important to be careful to think what you really mean. We think we know what poverty-ridden means, but we really don’t.
"If you were to describe what you mean in plain language, then the reader will have a better comprehension of your whole point."
This can apply to a number of different scenarios, but to look at the example of disability, the difference between people-first and identity-first language would be the difference between ‘a person who is disabled’ and ‘disabled person’.
"A lot of editors and writers have been taught that people-first language (a person who is disabled) is the only way to go.
"But if you talk to the community, there is a movement to accept that there is nothing wrong with being disabled and by separating the disability from the person, you are implying there is," she said.
"I recommend that you explain the debate, so you can start with ‘person who is disabled’, and then acknowledge you will alternate between people-first and identity-first because of the debate."
There are wider applications for this as well.
"Some people dislike the word 'Asian-American' and prefer to use ethnicity-based labels, such as 'Chinese-American', I personally say 'person of Chinese descent'," she explained.
"Sometimes, however, I need to emphasise the fact I’m American, so I will say 'American of Chinese descent'. It depends on what the context is, but it does everybody a disservice to pretend that one way of talking about a community is accurate."
Free daily newsletter
- Optimising Tweetdeck and digital doorstepping: Dos and don'ts of social media reporting
- What will the next decade look like for journalism?
- Christmas podcast: Journalism.co.uk looks back at 2019's hot (and not) topics in the media industry
- What did the 2010s mean for the media industry?
- New BJTC scheme helps disadvantaged journalism students afford work placements, whether that is paying for their commute or a new pair of shoes