Describing a person in a news article should be managed carefully to avoid using outdated or offensive words while remaining precise and accurate. These descriptions should be used to further the purpose of the journalistic piece. When selecting words, attention to detail and sensitivity to currently acceptable terminology ensures a neutral and non-offensive approach, whether the piece is describing a person's ethnicity, disability or other details.
- Only use descriptions that are pertinent
- Make the descriptor secondary
- Avoid negative connotation
- Never stereotype
Avoid making a piece offensive or negative in nature by using descriptions that are not applicable to the story. For instance, only describe a person as having a disability if this has direct impact on the purpose of the story.
All people should be presented as people first and then described more specifically. For example, refer to the "athlete, who is deaf," rather than a "deaf athlete." This also applies to describing a person with disabilities. Rather than describing a person as "disabled," he or she should be described as having disabilities or with a description of the specific disability.
Neutrality is key to journalism, and it is important in news stories to avoid coloring a statement with subjective terminology. Avoid using "suffers," "stricken," "copes" and other such terms to describe a person's disability or other challenges. Instead, use straightforward words such as "has" or "with" to introduce the condition or issues. When describing a person's age, ethnicity or physical appearance, avoid words that bring to mind a particular opinion or judgment. For example, expressing a person's age in numbers is less judgmental than referring to that person as elderly.
Do not use descriptions of a person to stereotype that person or to imply he or she has certain characteristics or personality traits because of that descriptor. While using a description such as "Black," "White," "Latino" or "Asian" can help make a suspect description more accurate or clarify the motivations in a particular story, using stereotyping terms such as "Jewish-looking" or "inner-city" is damaging and puts the piece in a negative light.