Promoting humanizing and destigmatizing language in newsrooms April-October 2022
FWD.us People First Campaign
Through values-aligned media monitoring, Spitfire supported the criminal justice reform team at FWD.us in identifying the use of stigmatizing and dehumanizing language — words such as “prisoner,” “felon” and “convict” — in news reports across the country. Equipped with that data, Spitfire provided our partner with a messaging and communications strategy and a style guide launch plan to promote FWD.us’s groundbreaking People First campaign. We specifically designed our research and recommendations to enable FWD.us staff and partners to engage with and educate newsrooms about how to produce equitable and humanizing journalism that centers justice rather than stereotypes.
Language can be used as a tool for liberation, speaking futures into existence and demonstrating the value of each person in communities. It can also dehumanize, isolate and disenfranchise when people use labels as weapons to further punish people with stigmatized identities.
In 2021, FWD.us, which works to build fairer and more just immigration and criminal legal systems in the United States, launched its People First Campaign with the goal of holding the news media accountable to use people-first language when reporting on people involved in and affected by the criminal legal system. Following the report release, FWD.us partnered with Spitfire to conduct additional media monitoring and analysis of national and local press coverage to keep track of how often major outlets used people-first language in “crime” reporting and use that data to push newsrooms to develop a consistent standard of using people-first language in all reporting.
To do that, Spitfire conducted weekly media monitoring of four national outlets and five local publications in major metropolitan areas across the country to track language using a keyword search for labels used to describe people affected by the criminal legal system. We chose local papers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer, New Orleans Times-Picayune, The Los Angeles Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch based on their reach and their cities’ history with criminal justice and a large incarceration rate of Black and brown people. Spitfire compared and contrasted when those papers used people-first language as opposed to dehumanizing language. We used the findings to identify opportunities for FWD.us to make direct connections with reporters, editors and publishers to urge them to avoid dehumanizing and harmful language in their work.
Through weekly media reviews, Spitfire gathered data on the language, tone, content and use of photo/video to determine whether it was in alignment with a people-first approach, whether it was considered dehumanizing or whether it was inconsistent throughout. If the person’s race was mentioned, we gathered that data to pick up on patterns of disproportionate treatment of Black and brown people when writing about crime and justice. With that data, we reported on weekly trends and recommendations based on those trends for FWD.us to respond to current media and put pressure on bellwether outlets, including The Associated Press and calling on it to include people-first guidelines in its respected and influential “AP Stylebook.”
Over the course of our partnership, Spitfire provided FWD.us with recommendations to engage the media in strategic ways to elevate its voice, including publishing op-eds, demonstrating compare/contrast examples of media language on social channels, speaking about the People First Campaign at national conferences, and using direct outreach to media outlets and critics to shine a light on this issue. Our monitoring, the recommendations that stemmed from it as well as illuminating the racial reckoning this country still must honestly and forthrightly face further laid the foundation to beckon change in crime reporting.
As FWD.us worked to create its own people-first style guide, Spitfire developed a comprehensive launch and outreach plan to provide the FWD.us team with communication activities that would build momentum and garner support for the adoption of its guide and recommendations in newsrooms across the country as well as influence the “AP Stylebook” to include more directive guidance for reporters to avoid harmful phrases, descriptions and images that serve only to marginalize and criminalize rather than humanize and liberate.