Globe public editor Sylvia Stead discusses the need for journalists to be vigilant in their choice of language, words and labels.
Psycho, schizo, retarded, vegetable – there are all sorts of words that can, or should, make us cringe when used inappropriately. They are dated at best; at worst, truly hurtful.
Everyone should strive to keep their language current and respectful, but it is especially important that journalists do so. People reporting, analyzing and commenting on the news cannot appear out of date or insensitive. Not when what they say and how they say it can have such an impact.
The need for vigilance is constant because even inadvertent miscues can cause problems. For example, a recent story about taxes on tampons noted that such products also are used by some “transgender.” An editor tried to clarify the point by specifying transgender women; The Globe published a correction, noting that we should have said “transgender people.”
Confusion like this is one reason that the organization GLAAD, which works “to ensure accurate and diverse representations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people” tries to increase awareness by reminding journalists that transgender is an adjective, not a noun, and that, when possible, transgender people should be asked how they would prefer to be described.
Increased awareness has also had an effect on mental-health issues, drastically reducing the use of such derogatory terms as psycho, schizo and retarded. Even in a historical context, they can seem out out of place.
For example, some readers were uncomfortable with this passage in a recent story about a man who lost his ability to move, speak, hear and see, only to regain it years later: “Strapped into a wheelchair, he was viewed by the world around him as a vegetable, a shell of the boy he once was.”
Even used in a sympathetic story and in reference to the distant past, “vegetable” stands out.
Should troublesome terms simply be outlawed?
Lawrence Carter-Long, a U.S. communications specialist and disability advocate, says no. “I’m not one for banning much of anything – I’d rather we talk about what words are used and why,” he told me in an e-mail. “That said, if you want to avoid unnecessary headaches, I’d say words like spastic should probably be avoided, as should archaic phrasing like retarded.”
He’d also add invalid, wheelchair-bound and crazy to the list because “using them creates more problems than anyone wants or needs [and] sounds out of touch, like something out of the 1920s.”
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