The labels journalists use to describe communities, especially communities that are often marginalised, have the power to shape opinions.
In a recent study, the Center for Media Engagement partnered with Resolve Philly (an organisation that promotes best practices for equitable and community-based journalism) to find out how marginalised communities feel about certain labels in news stories.
The report examined how person-centered language, or language that puts humanity first rather than using stereotypical labels, is viewed by three often stigmatised groups. To do this, we asked people in recovery from substance use disorder, people who have experienced homelessness, and people with a disability for their feedback on news articles.
Study and findings
Participants in the study read a news article about their group that either used person-centered language (e.g., people with disabilities, people with substance use disorder, or people without housing) or stigmatising language (e.g., the disabled, drug abusers, the homeless). They then answered questions about how much they trusted the news article and its author, their intention to engage with the article, and how well the article represented their group.
The results showed people who read an article that used person-centered terms for their group felt more humanised in the article. They also trusted the story more than the people who read an article that used stigmatising labels.
As part of the survey, participants were asked about the terms they preferred journalists use when reporting on their group. They were able to select from a list of terms as well as provide their own. In general, participants selected person-centered terms much more often.
While sharing their thoughts on the language used by journalists, one participant said: “I think the terms journalists use to describe people is important because it can frame how they should be viewed by the reader. They should be assigned terms that respect their dignity as humans and reflect where they are at now in life.”
Another participant said: “I think that when journalists use the term disabled people, it makes the disabled part more dominant than the people part. I enjoy being a person first and having a disability second. I am still soul, mind, and body. I am not just my disability!”
Takeaways for newsrooms
The results reveal how small changes in language can shift attitudes. Using person-centered language can foster trust and help news organisations better connect with stigmatised groups. It can also help some marginalised groups feel better represented by news coverage.
Given these findings, news organisations should use person-centered language in news articles and take the time to engage in conversations with their sources about their preferred terms.