USC Annenberg Media Resources

Guide to Thoughtful Language

Our guiding principle in the Media Center is that we should treat everyone we cover with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. We must exercise care whenever we consider including descriptions of age, disability, ethnicity and race, gender or sexuality. Likewise, we must be cautious in considering the use of obscenities, profanities and vulgarities, which should remain rare.

The following guidance is drawn mostly from the Associated Press stylebook, whose complete listings are an essential reference that you should already be consulting routinely. We include a list of suggested additional references at the end of this guide.

No brief guide such as this can cover every situation. In your daily work for the Media Center, regardless of the medium, you should consult with a senior member of the student staff and your faculty advisers whenever you face coverage and content decisions in any of these broad areas. When in doubt, ask. And always remember the people at the core of your stories. Treat them as you would yourself like to be treated.

AGE

Use ages only when such information is relevant. AP gives the example of teenagers commenting on video games aimed at their age group. That’s a case where ages are informative and thus appropriate.

At the other end of the spectrum, AP says, use the terms senior citizen and elderly carefully and sparingly when referring to individuals. The terms may be appropriate in generic phrases referring to groups: concern for elderly people, a home for senior citizens.

Examples:

OK but not ideal:
The bill is opposed by AARP, the advocacy group for the elderly.

Better:

The bill is opposed by AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans.

DISABILITY

The AP Stylebook listing for disabled, handicapped provides guidance on reporting about people with disabilities, including cautions about specific terms.

The basic philosophy rests on two principles:

  • Do not describe an individual as disabled or handicapped unless it is clearly pertinent to a story.
  • Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with or suffers from.

Examples:

Wrong:

She suffers from multiple sclerosis.

Right:

She has multiple sclerosis.

ETHNICITY and RACE

The central question in referring to a person’s race or ethnicity: Is that information essential to telling your story? If it is not germane, then omit it. If race is relevant and you plan to mention it, ask your sources how they prefer to be identified. AP, in its listing on race, gives three categories in which references to race and ethnicity may be appropriate:

  • In biographical and announcement stories that involve significant, groundbreaking or historic events: Barack Obama was the first black U.S. president. Sonia Sotomayor is the first Latina justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jeremy Lin is the first American-born NBA player of Taiwanese descent.
  • When reporting a demonstration or disturbance involving race or such issues as civil rights or slavery.
  • For suspects sought by the police or missing person cases using police or other credible, detailed descriptions. Such descriptions apply for all races. The racial reference should be removed when the individual is apprehended or found.

We’ll add an important caution to AP’s listing on that last point: Merely describing a suspect by race or ethnicity, in the absence of additional specific details (clothing, height, distinguishing physical details), can have the effect of defaming a large group of people without providing much information for readers or viewers. Proceed with caution. Even if authorities give the race or ethnicity in such a case, omission is often the best course.

Some general guidance from AP, with additional notes:

  • Capitalize the proper names of nationalities, peoples, races, tribes, etc.: Arab, Arabic, African, American, Caucasian, Cherokee, Chinese (both singular and plural), Eskimo (plural Eskimos) or Inuit, French Canadian, Japanese (singular and plural), Jew, Jewish, Nordic, Sioux, Swede, etc. But lowercase black and white.
  • African-American is acceptable for an American black person of African descent. Also acceptable is black. The terms are not necessarily interchangeable. People from Caribbean nations, for example, generally refer to themselves as Caribbean-American, or they might identify as Haitian-American or Jamaican-American. Follow a person’s preference. Note the use of hyphens.
  • Asian-American is acceptable for a person of Asian birth or descent who lives in the U.S. When possible, refer to a person’s country of origin. For example: Filipino-American or Indian-American. Again, follow the person’s preference.
  • Latino and Latina are often the preferred term for a person from — or whose ancestors were from — a Spanish-speaking land or culture or from Latin America. In much of the Southwest, including Los Angeles, those terms are preferable to Hispanic. Follow the person’s preference. Use a more specific identification when possible, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian or Mexican-American.

GENDER

Gender and sex are not synonymous. From AP: “Gender refers to a person’s social identity, while sex refers to biological characteristics. Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people. When needed for clarity or in certain stories about scientific studies, alternatives include men and women, boys and girls, males and females.”

Refer to people by the pronouns they prefer. BuzzFeed notes in its style guide that, unless you know based on prior research, you should ask sources how they prefer to be identified. For more guidance, see the they, them, their listing in the AP stylebook.

The adjective transgender, the AP says, “describes people whose biology at birth does not match their gender identity. … Identify people as transgender only if pertinent, using the word as an adjective: Bernard is a transgender man. Christina is transgender. The shorthand trans is acceptable only in direct quotes, on second reference and in headlines: Grammys add first man and first trans woman as trophy handlers.”

Also from AP: Do not use transgender as a noun, refer to someone as a transgender or use the term transgendered. Do not use the outdated term transsexual. Do not use a derogatory term such as tranny except in extremely rare circumstances — only in a quote when it is crucial to the story or the understanding of a news event, and only with permission of a senior editor.

Use the name by which a transgender person lives: Chelsea Manning, Caitlyn Jenner. Refer to a previous name rarely, and only if it is relevant to the story: Caitlyn Jenner, who won a 1976 Olympic gold medal in the decathlon as Bruce Jenner.

See the reference list below for further guidance on LGBTQ terminology.

OBSCENITIES, PROFANITIES and VULGARITIES

We should avoid using swear words in prominent places such as headlines, but they are generally fine in quotes in the body of a story or a social media caption. They should not be used gratuitously. It’s always best to check with a senior editor before proceeding.

As AP notes, it is sometimes preferable to give a sense of what was said without using the potentially troublesome word or phrase. For example: an anti-gay or sexist slur in lieu of the actual slur.

SEXUALITY

AP cautions that sex, gender and sexual orientation are not synonymous. See the stylebook for more specific guidance.

LGBT is acceptable in all references for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning and/or queer. In quotations and the formal names of organizations and events, other forms such as LGBTQIA and other variations are also acceptable with the other letters explained. I generally stands for intersex, and A can stand for allies (a person who is not LGBT but who actively supports the LGBT community), asexual (a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction) or both.

The word queer can be considered a slur in many contexts, so limit use of the word to quotes and names of organizations, following rules for obscenities, profanities, vulgarities as appropriate.

See the reference list below for further guidance on LGBTQ terminology.

REFERENCES

Conscious Style Guide

This website is devoted to what it calls conscious language, “the art of using words effectively in a specific context.” The key questions to ask, site editor Karen Yin says: “Who is your audience? What tone and level of formality do you want? What are you trying to achieve? Some words are more apt than others.” Yin has created guides based on subject, including age, appearance, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality. conciousstyleguide.com

LGBTQ Style Guides

GLAAD: https://www.glaad.org/reference

NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists: http://www.nlgja.org/stylebook/

BuzzFeed (you can jump to the section on LGBT terms from the index at the top): https://www.buzzfeed.com/emmyf/buzzfeed-style-guide?utm_term=.bh8koknwv#.lxkyPynKx

SPJ Code of Ethics

The Society of Professional Journalists builds its Code of Ethics around four guiding principles: seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; and be accountable and transparent. The full code, an essential guide for conducting ethical journalism, is online at http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.

 

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