Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Having tracked the evolution of language in a nascent presidency, we next turn to the weight of words chosen by journalists, specifically, those used to describe people who are incarcerated. According to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system, frequently used terms like "inmate", "felon" and "defender" aren't as neutral as some reporters may think. In fact, they can offend and mislead.
Their newly released Language Project is a style guide for reporters accompanied by a series of essays, examining the meanings and consequences of words like "inmate". The endeavor was born when Marshall Project's senior editor, Akiba Solomon received a phone call from a journalist incarcerated in California.
Akiba Solomon: There is an incarcerated journalist in San Quentin named Rahsaan Thomas, who's been a leader on this issue. When I started at the Marshall Project in December 2019, Rahsaan called me and basically said, "You're somebody I need to talk to."
Brooke: What was the problem? Reporters, editors, criminal justice professionals, they've long assumed that terms like "inmate" or "felon" or "offender" are clear and succinct and neutral. What did Rahsaan tell you?
Akiba: Rahsaan told me that the terms are de-humanizing. It is something that reduces a person to what he said is the worst thing that you could have done in your life. Once you're branded an inmate in media, particularly digital media, which you can never get rid of, then you will always be an inmate. You won't be a person.
Brooke: What word was the most offensive?
Akiba: Inmate was the most offensive. What we heard from several folks who were previously incarcerated is that that word can be read as the N word. In another case, a former corrections officer from New York told us that when "inmate" is used, you're really calling someone the snitch. I think it's also important to point out that some of this terminology is regional.
Lawrence Bartley, who is the director of News Inside, who wrote an essay for the piece, mentions that in some parts of the country, "inmate" is actually not as offensive as say "convict". The whole point of journalism is supposed to be clarity and storytelling. If we're using words that imply something that we're not purposely implying, we believe are neutral and really they're slurs, then we're not being clear.
Brooke: I was really surprised to read in your essay that 74% of people held in jails haven't been convicted of a crime.
Akiba: Correct. Most people wouldn't know that. If you are reporting a story and you describe someone as an inmate from [unintelligible 00:02:58] Prison, people assume that that person "belongs there". There's obviously a suggestion of guilt that procedurally has not been in place.
Brooke: The Language Project that advocates a people-first lexicon, incarcerated person, a person in jail that the name should come first. I wonder what you do about headlines.
Akiba: We do make an exception for a prisoner because when we did our survey or call out, as we call them, of our readers, a large percentage of people, they wanted people to use their name, but "prisoner" was the least offensive of all of them. We do understand that sometimes it can become impossible, particularly in a headline to use something as long as "incarcerated person" or "a person who is detained at", or "a person who is jail at".
We have to keep in mind we have incarcerated people in our audiences or previously incarcerated people or loved ones of incarcerated people because that's the nature of mass incarceration that it touches a great deal of people. If we don't change this language and we keep hearing that it's offensive, then we're actually causing harm.
Brooke: As you mentioned earlier, in different parts of the country and in different prisons, certain words can take on different connotations. You can't get a unanimous decision. On some words like for instance, "convict".
Akiba: "Convict" from what we've learned is generational. There's an example in Rahsaan Thomas's piece, where he talks about an "OG" who calls himself a convict and derives other people as inmates because he feels that inmates don't have any morals, inmates are snitches, but that a convict is something that you wear with pride. In that essay too, Rahsaan pushes back, even on this man with considerably more experience than him because he says that it's still a label. What I would add to it is that a person who's incarcerated calling themselves something and a journalist using that label as neutral language are two different things.
How many people in prison in jail call themselves inmates and think that this is a stupid conversation? To me, the obvious comparison is the N word. You have a group of people who are using words because they are turning them on their head, but if a media organ that has considerably more power uses the word, then it takes on different meaning.
Brooke: One of your essay writers tells a story, maybe apocryphal, about three men on a mess hall line in prison. It's explains how to work your way through the conundrum of choosing the right words.
Akiba: That is from Lawrence Bartley's essay I Am Not Your 'Inmate'. To summarize, there are three men on a mess hall line, one calls himself a convict because he knew what he was doing when he participated in his crime and needless to say, he was convicted. Another man calls himself a prisoner because of his political views. He went to trial and was convicted, but doesn't consider himself a convict. Then the third calls himself an inmate. He was convicted and sentenced to prison. All he was interested in was hanging out in the yard, playing cards and watching TV.
A fourth person who was new to all of it, entered the conversation and asked, "What's the best way to get the most out of prison?" The convict said, "Learn how to commit new and better crimes." The prisoner said, "Work to right the wrongs of the system." The inmate said, "Just seek out a good time." The newcomer said, "Is there anything you three can agree on?" They all said, "Yes, we are incarcerated people."
Brooke: What feedback have you gotten from journalists
Akiba: It's been a mixed bag. The Oregonian wrote a piece that stated that they're thinking about it actively. Then there have been behind-the-scenes experiences that I've had with people who are extremely resistant to it. The resistance really centers on how they think their audience is going to react. Perhaps, as a reader, if you're used to reading publications that don't consider people who are in the system as part of their audience and that they only consider people in the system as story subjects then this is going to be jarring.
Brooke: What are they afraid of in terms of the audience reacting?
Akiba: They're afraid that their audience will accuse them of soft-pedaling crime by saying something longer or saying something that doesn't sound as direct as say, "murderer". I did a Poynter webinar.
Brooke: The Poynter Institute is one that focuses on journalism practice and ethics.
Akiba: Yes. The moderator was doing a bit of devil's advocate. At one point he asked me, "What would you call Derek Chauvin? Would you call him a murderer?" I responded, "No. I would call him a former Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of murdering George Floyd." There was lack of belief that that's what I would call Derek Chauvin. As a journalist, again, that's discipline. If we interview someone and they call Derek Chauvin a murderer, then we'll quote them. We're not going to change the way people speak. We're talking about our storytelling and the words that we choose.
Brooke: Dang, the language keeps changing.
Akiba: The language keeps changing but we acknowledge that. There's a reason why the Associated Press Stylebook is frequently revised, it's because language and usage of language does evolve. What we've pledged to do is to use the logic of people, first language, and to revisit as we get feedback, as things evolve, we will react to that. This is our starting point.
Brooke: Thank you very much.
Akiba: Thank you for having me.
Brooke: Akiba Solomon is a senior editor at the Marshall Project.
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