WaPo Readers Cite Unfair Labels: 'Wheel-chair bound', 'illegal immigrant' & 'ex-Marine'

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The Washington Post public editor Andrew Alexander advised journalists to check the editorial stylebook before quickly labeling people in articles. (Credit: Washington Post)

Washington Post reader Ronald C. Semone complained about an Oct. 16 Metro story, which labeled a man recently convicted of rape and kidnapping as an “ex-Marine,” without explaining why the man is a former Marine – or that he became an ex-Marine resulting from his arrest, WaPo public editor Andrew Alexander reported.

Semone noted that there are probably “many other past affiliations that could have been used to identify him,” of which “any one of those would have been just as relevant to the crime of which he was convicted,” according to Alexander.

Semone’s point was:  By bringing up the Marines in the crime story–without mentioning that the Marines addressed the issue–the Post is unfairly tarnishing the reputation of the Marines.

iMediaEthics has written to a representative of the Marines to ask what they think and will update with any response.

Alexander agreed with Semone’s criticism of the ex-Marine label; however, despite Alexander’s criticism, StinkyJournalism notes that there are no updates to the story to clarify this point.

The public editor used Semone’s criticism as a launching pad for an entire column explaining that he often receives complaints from readers over brief, unexplained labels like the “ex-Marine” reference.

“These shorthand labels and phrases, routinely used to describe everything from ideology to physical appearance, prompt a steady stream of complaints to the ombudsman when readers think they are inaccurate, misleading or unnecessary,” Alexander explained.

“illegal immigrant” or “undocumented immigrant” ? 

A recent area of contention has been the Washington Post stylebook’s permission for the exchange of “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant,” Alexander wrote   However, some immigrants cannot be both – if they have an expired, but once legal visa, for example.

Some other common identifiers that generate reader complaints include labels that pigeonhole people into certain ideological beliefs or that classify parent-child relationships as adoptive.

Acceptable ways of identifying people in stories include by gender and numeric age (as opposed to “elderly”), according to Alexander.  “Labels, economical and helpful, can prove harmful if inexact. Accuracy is essential. And relevance is key,” Alexander wrote.

Another oft-complained about label is “wheelchair-bound,” Alexander added.

After all, others aren’t described as “car-bound,” a reader pointed out, according to Alexander.

National Center on Disability & Journalism

The National Center on Disability and Journalism, for example, advises that journalists don’t mention any disability “unless it is clearly pertinent to a story. If it is pertinent, it is best to use language that refers to the person first and the disability second. For example: ‘The writer, who has a disability’ as opposed to ‘The disabled writer.'”

Further, the center advises journalists don’t group people with disabilities together as “the disabled” and explained that not all people with disabilities “suffer” or are “victims.”  Therefore, journalists should “use neutral language” and simply identify the disability as is.

Specifically addressing wheelchairs, the center agreed with The Post’s stylebook advising not mentioning the wheelchair unless it’s “essential to the story.”  Also, and along the same standards of the Associated Press sytylebook, the center recommended not using the phrases “confined to a wheel-chair” or “wheelchair-bound.”

“Instead, use ‘person who uses a wheelchair’ or ‘wheelchair user,'” the center instructed.

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WaPo Readers Cite Unfair Labels: ‘Wheel-chair bound’, ‘illegal immigrant’ & ‘ex-Marine’

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