In this country, names matter. Using the word “inmate” on a wrongfully imprisoned 14-year-old reduces that child to an evil-sounding statistic that deserves everything “it” has coming to “it.” This also holds true when it’s used on a person serving time for possessing a plant that’s legal to possess in many states. That’s the argument of Brian Elderbroom, Felicity Roseand and Zoë Towns, authors of the report, People First: The Use and Impact of Criminal Justice Labels in Media Coverage.
For years, news outlets have used dehumanizing labels such as “inmate,” “offender,” and “felon” in criminal justice reporting, often without even realizing the damage they’re doing. Despite their common usage, these terms are not neutral-sounding descriptors. These terms spread bias.
Criminal justice reform non-profit FWD.us conducted a survey of respondents exposed to mock newspaper headlines and ledes using either dehumanizing terms like “felon” or “people-first” language like “brother” or “son” on individuals. After reading these mock news stories, 75% of polled respondents who read the dehumanizing terms showed “significantly lower support for reform or for the people discussed in the story.”
The report further revealed that when news reports used dehumanizing language, respondents 50 years or older (who are more likely to be rural, white, and conservative) were the most likely to shift their views based on the language.
Responding to the damage, FWD.us launched the People First Campaign with the help of Advancement Project, JLUSA, Fortune Society, Osborne Association, We Got Us Now, and additional support from the Public Welfare Foundation. Group participants are now begging media outlets to commit to using more humanizing language when reporting about the justice and criminal system and the people caught up in it.
“This sprawling criminal justice system comes with a specialized language all its own: misdemeanant, felon, convict, juvenile delinquent, offender, inmate, and on and on. The labels replace names and other descriptors, like woman, sister, daughter, man, husband, father, child, and person, and they define and flatten those punished through the criminal justice system to their criminal justice system contact alone,” the FWD.us report claims. “The labels are hard to shake and often follow people beyond courtrooms and prison walls.”
Something as simple as bad terminology can be a heightened problem in the U.S., which is the world’s leader in incarceration with about 2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails. An additional 113 million have formerly or currently incarcerated family members, and one in three are living with a criminal record.
The nation’s love of incarceration evolved from its use of the prison industry to extend legal slavery beyond the end of the Civil War. For many decades local police and deputies arrested Black people for arbitrary laws such as “vagrancy,” “selling cotton after sunset” and “false pretense” …whatever that is. Courts sentenced convicted victims to build the nation’s highways, dig ditches, mine coal, and pick cotton for white farmers. Years after more than a million Americans died to end slavery, Black people were back to working on plantations without pay.
“Not surprisingly [chain gangs] were modeled after the slave plantation. Practically all of the prisoners were Black, both male and female,” according to critics.
Even more recently, the nation’s incarceration rate ballooned 500 percent thanks to enhanced drug laws and drug-related sentencing that virtually turned the U.S. into a militaristic incarceration state, compared to other countries.
“Sentencing policies of the War on Drugs era resulted in dramatic growth in incarceration for drug offenses. Since its official beginning in the 1980s, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 430,926 in 2019,” claims the Sentencing Project.
Today 11 percent of all Mississippians and almost 20 percent of the state’s Black population can’t vote because of felony convictions, and only now are states like Mississippi coming to terms with the damage as the expense of incarcerating more than one percent of its entire population devours the state’s budget. Of course, white legislators still don’t want Black ex-felons voting, which is in line with the state’s restrictive voting history and centuries-long contempt for democracy.
In addition to the loss of essential human rights such as the right to vote and other outrages, the dehumanizing prospects of the U.S. justice system apparently extends to basic labels, and it comes down to the media to do their part to reverse the damage.
“Media played an outsize role in creating and sustaining the criminal justice system of today and will play an outsize role in whether and how we define our future without it,” the report states because major media currently has no real style guidelines on how to address people impacted by the criminal justice system. Instead, they defer to the language of justice system officials, who frequently “[ignore] the voices of those most stigmatized by these terms.”
According to sources, it’s past time to update those guidelines.