Report Outlines Years-Long Call For “People First” Language, Underscores Widespread Use of Dehumanizing Language in Major Media Outlets, and Demonstrates How Word Choice Influences the Perception of People Impacted by the Criminal Justice System
WASHINGTON, DC — Today, FWD.us released “People First: The Use and Impact of Criminal Justice Labels in Media Coverage”, a new research report that confirms that dehumanizing labels— like “inmate” “offender” and “felon” — are still widely used by leading U.S. newspapers and other media outlets, and the use of these terms biases readers and viewers against incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and convicted people and criminal justice reform.
The new report, which includes research that examined the coverage in eight newspapers and wire services and surveyed 2,800 people across two surveys, found that criminal justice labels such as “inmate” “felon” and “offender” were used in more than 10,000 stories in 2020, and that these labels are not neutral descriptors but are, instead, perpetuating false and dangerous stereotypes, artificially inflating support for mass incarceration, and dampening the impact of much-needed critiques.
Research key findings include:
- Benenson Strategy Group, in partnership with FWD.us, conducted two national surveys to determine the impact of these labels on public opinion compared to the same questions and stories using “people first” language. In both direct tests of the labels versus “people first” language and in mock news stories, respondents experienced “people first” language as significantly more neutral than the labels commonly used by the criminal justice system.
- When used in a media context, these words bias readers against incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and convicted people and reduce support for reform. Seventy-five percent of the mock news stories (6/8) tested showed lower support for reform or individuals in the system when criminal justice labels were used.
- Outlets in the media analysis used harmful terms 21 times more than “people first” language, which only appeared in 4.5% of the stories reviewed.
“Designed to desensitize, labels like “convict,” “felon,” “inmate,” and “offender” further codify stigma, are hard to shake and often follow people beyond courtrooms and prison walls. Our new report backs what incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and convicted people have been saying for years. Not only do these harmful words hurt, they make more freedom less possible. This research confirms these terms are not neutral descriptors but are, instead, biasing the public in favor of mass incarceration and mass criminalization and its outcomes” said Zoë Towns, Vice President of Criminal Justice Reform at FWD.us. “So much of the logic and language that justifies the harsh and racially disparate grip of the American criminal justice system has been accepted and perpetuated by the media, popular culture, policymakers, and the public. While words alone will not dismantle mass incarceration, they can make our work to do so much harder. That’s why we are calling on more news outlets to adapt their style guides and their coverage to reflect ‘people first’ language in criminal justice reporting.”
“On any given day, there are more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in jail or prison, and millions more who often face insurmountable legal and social barriers from their convictions,” said DeAnna Hoskins, President of JustLeadershipUSA. “We are family members, friends, and community members, but far too often, those are not the words used to describe us – and we deserve better, more humanizing word choices. We, along with many other advocacy organizations, have long called on the media to stop using the dehumanizing jargon of the criminal justice system. We hope the findings of this new research will finally result in our call being answered.”
The case against the harmful jargon of the criminal justice system is not new and has been made with meaningful progress for years. Leaders from organizations including NuLeadership Group, Opportunity Agenda, Voice of the Experienced, JustLeadershipUSA, Osborne Association, Fortune Society, We Got Us Now, and many others have led these calls for more than two decades.
Most recently, the Marshall Project released a series of first-person accounts from directly impacted people and other activists who shared how dehumanizing labels have impacted them personally. These stories, along with input from readers and engagement with others who have experienced the harms of the criminal justice system first-hand, caused the digital news outlet to change its style guide and commit to using people-first language.
FWD.us is launching the report as part of a broader ongoing “People First” campaign, an ongoing narrative and public education campaign that advocates for language that restores dignity and humanity to the people directly impacted by the criminal justice system. This multi-pronged campaign will highlight the years of work already done by numerous leaders and organizations, adds new research demonstrating the impact these word choices are having on public opinion and much-needed reform, and makes a new and timely case for a broad adaptation of language that puts people first. The campaign is advised by a ten-member organization advisory council that includes: Advancement Project, Fortune Society, JustLeadershipUSA, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Osbourne Association, Voice of the Experienced, and We Got Us Now.
Learn more about the “People First” campaign here.
Read the full report, “People First: The Use and Impact of Criminal Justice Labels in Media Coverage,” here.