The stories journalists tell matter. So does the language they use to share them.
University of Southern California Annenberg Professor and Stylebot Founder and CEO Laura Davis and LAist reporter Caitlin Hernández stressed this point during Friday’s Society of Professional Journalists presentation on the importance of using ethical and inclusive language in journalism and how to get newsrooms to implement it in regular practice.
“It’s not just the right thing to do. It has actual real-world consequences…there’s evidence that this has effects on people’s lives,” Davis said.
The two journalists explored various instances of language that – when used with care for inclusion – increase trust in news, improve accuracy and reduce harm. One example was the broad use of “Latino,” as opposed to “Latinx” or “Latine,” to describe people.
Just 4% of all Latino adults prefer the term “Latinx,” while 61% prefer “Hispanic” and 29% prefer “Latino,” according to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center.
“If a source tells us we’re going to use Latinx or Latine, we’re going to use that,” Hernández said. “Respecting a source’s preference is paramount.”
And it’s not just the use of specific language that is important – the framing of the terms journalists use matters too. Hernández illustrated this by noting that outlets tend to explain a nonbinary person’s pronouns as part of a piece.
“If you’re not going to explain ‘she/her,’ if you’re not going to explain ‘he/him,’ there’s no need to explain ‘they/them,’” they said. “If you have someone using neopronouns like ‘xe/xim,’ ‘ze/zir,’ those are truly more uncommon and you do want a brief description.”
There is also a positive correlation between media coverage of suicide and an increase in suicidal behavior, according to a 2018 study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Davis said that when journalists are intentional about language surrounding suicide, they can prevent more deaths.
“[Suicide and mass shootings] are two well-documented areas of research,” she said, “and journalists, frankly, are still catching up. You can literally save lives by the practices in your newsroom.”
Davis and Hernández have each created style guides in the past: Davis helped create USC Annenberg’s style guide, while Hernández is the lead author of Dialogue, a public and participatory style guide. Both encouraged attendees to be fair and accurate when navigating the use of language, even if it means
writing phrases that are longer.
“We understand some of those challenges,” Davis said, “but, in some cases, you do have the space to write more. It’s not worth perpetuating stereotypes [or] losing trust, just to save a little space. You’re a writer, you can do it.”
Attendees also discussed their experiences with one another. Sean Golonka, a reporter at The Nevada Independent, said that early in his career, he wrote a story about an audit of a Nevada prison system. State officials used the term “offenders” in their conversations with Golonka, and he then used the term in his story. He received feedback from readers that made him more aware of the implications of the term and now uses “people who are incarcerated” instead.
“It wasn’t even a conversation with my editors,” Golonka said. “It was something I saw online … I made a personal decision to change my language and the way I wrote about it.”
But personal decisions may not always be enough. Davis and Hernández encouraged journalists to push back against disapproval they might receive when trying to use more ethical and inclusive language.
“We don’t use the same language that we used 50 years ago,” Hernández said. “Discussions are worth it at the end of the day, even if there’s no change.”
Other strategies proposed included leaning into community-driven spaces, circulating research to the right people and receiving feedback from audiences. Davis also called for veteran journalists and professors to listen to their younger counterparts.
“They know intuitively how these things are being done,” she said. “Let’s give a nod to this generation.”
Emerson College Professor Angela Anderson Connolly said she left the session with more knowledge than before.
“I learned I need to work with my students to develop inclusive language,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Anderson Connolly and her tablemates discussed language used in immigration coverage and she said she received insight into the nuances between terms like “migrant” and “asylum seeker.”
“The perspective was something I would have never gotten at home,” she said.
Golonka’s biggest takeaway from the event was the idea of asking people how they’d like to be referred to.
“For a long time we as journalists have ascribed terms to groups that aren’t respectful,” he said. “It’s so easy, if you have a set term for describing people, to fall back on what your newsroom’s default term is instead of making [asking them] a regular conversation.”
“Culture change takes time and it’s all these little things,” Hernández said. “But they will add up over time.”