Changing the language around incarceration


The Associated Press Stylebook, as of yet, provides no guidance on the language around the incarcerated. If the media were to follow the person-first approach, the practice should be to describe people in prison as “a person who is incarcerated,” “person in prison” or “incarcerated person.” But when conducted a search of stories published in 2020 in eight newspapers and wire services including in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press, it found more than 10,000 articles that used the terms “inmate,” “felon” or “offender,” compared to 480 articles that used people-first terms.

As a journalist, I understand the reasons why — at first glance, the terms seem neutrally factual. More importantly, the words are short, succinct and easy to fit into sentences and headlines. But as I do more and more work with writers inside, it doesn’t feel right. If each of us were truly honest, how many of us would not cringe or react with fear if they were told that someone had been an “inmate?”

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