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Commentary

The Other F-word

What we call the imprisoned matters.

The other day Margaret Love, a veteran clemency lawyer, scolded The New York Times for this front-page headline: “Virginia Governor Restores Voting Rights to Felons.” She applauded the news — some 200,000 Virginians, most of them African-American, recovered their voting rights under Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order — but she deplored the word “felons.”

“This ugly stigmatizing label has been broadly criticized as counterproductive to reintegration efforts, perpetuating stereotypes about people with a criminal record and encouraging discrimination against them,” she wrote in a blog post. “While the Governor himself was careful with his language, not a single major newspaper reporting on his action could resist including the word in its headline.”

As you can probably imagine, this is a familiar discussion at a news outlet focused on criminal justice. I wrestled with it a year ago and solicited feedback from our readers. The callout provoked some strong feelings, but no clear consensus, even among readers who had been incarcerated.

A couple of months ago I visited the editors of the newspaper published by residents of San Quentin Prison, and heard a young writer argue that the words “inmate” and “prisoner” should be discarded as the oppressors’ labels. His alternative was “incarcerated American.” (“Incarcerated person” was not embracing enough.) An older man, the managing editor, rolled his eyes and pointed out that inmates and prisoners call each other inmates and prisoners.

On both sides of the bars, it can be tricky navigating between the obligation to be direct and clear to readers and the desire not to give gratuitous offense.

As journalists (not that I speak for all journalists) we tend to resist the banishing of words, especially words that are accurate, precise, and well understood. We cringe from euphemisms that amount to badges of political correctness — “incarcerated Americans” — or that just sound like jargon. Prison staffers prefer to be known as “correctional officers” because, they say, “guards” sounds passive; at The Marshall Project we use the words interchangeably, because “correctional officers” is a bureaucratic mouthful and “guards” carries no opprobrium. On both sides of the bars, it can be tricky navigating between the obligation to be direct and clear to readers and the desire not to give gratuitous offense.

I contacted my friend and former colleague at The Times, Phil Corbett, the standards editor, and he had this to say about the “felon” furor:

The whole point of the story was in WHO these thousands were — that is, “people who had been convicted of serious crimes.” Or, in the sometimes bludgeon-like shorthand of headlines, “felons.” In this case, their criminal history was indeed the essential element.

That said, I don’t deny that using that shorthand noun conveys a tone beyond just the informational content. It’s somewhat analogous to calling someone “a schizophrenic,” which we try to avoid, as opposed to “a person with schizophrenia.” (Of course, the analogy is inexact — committing a serious crime is not the same as developing a mental illness.)

I don’t think we would serve readers well by downplaying or sugar-coating someone’s legal history, when that history is directly relevant. And I suspect “felon” might be hard to avoid at times in tight headline confines. But in the text of a story like that one, we could probably make the effort to say, e.g., “200,000 people convicted of serious crimes” instead of “200,000 convicted felons.”

What I tell my staff is to minimize the use of labels when referring to an individual; individuals have names, and nobody should be defined solely by the worst thing he or she has done. (And Margaret Love is probably right that reducing people to epithets makes it harder for them to assimilate and live within the law.) But it’s appropriate and often unavoidable to use labels when writing about measures or events that affect whole categories. In our morning newsletter, our summary of the Virginia news was: “Reversing 150 years of felony disenfranchisement, Virginia governor restores voting rights for more than 200,000 ex-offenders.” Love doesn’t love “ex-offenders” either, but I can live with it.

Language usage in the mainstream media evolves, and the creative dynamics of the internet seem to have accelerated the process. The New York Times didn’t begin using the word “gay” until 1987; today it freely uses the word “queer,” which not long ago was described in the paper’s style guide as “an offensive slur,” but which has been reclaimed by a younger generation. Likewise, words that not long ago were used without qualms may come to be regarded as demeaning: “colored,” “illegals.” “Felon,” which makes the person synonymous with the crime, is such a word. Likewise “convict.” I’m less troubled by words that describe a temporary status without the suggestion of irredeemable wickedness — “inmate” and “prisoner” and “ex-offender” — but ask me again a year from now.