The name Scotland comes from a racial epithet the Romans used to describe pirates. The nation we know of as Egypt gets its name in most European languages from ancient Greek, even though the country is known to its inhabitants as Misr, a word with Semitic roots. Names given to indigenous peoples in the Americas have been called “an expression of colonial power.”
History is littered with examples of outsiders imposing names and ignoring the way communities — from ethnic groups and sovereign nations to artistic movements — refer to themselves collectively. Now, though, the right of communities based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity or other affinity to decide what they want to be called is widely accepted.
That is a welcome development, but it presents a quandary for journalists. On the one hand, identifying people according to their wishes is good journalism — it’s in keeping with our goals of accuracy, respect for the people we cover and a commitment to diversity.
But descriptors require the same kind of scrutiny as other facts we report on, for a number of reasons. People within the same community may differ as to how the community should be identified; some may see descriptors as obscuring crucial differences within or between groups; and even well-intentioned identifiers can be experienced by some as demeaning.
In some cases, one group’s self-identification may be triggering or problematic for another that uses similar terminology. For example, although the reasons differ significantly, many Jews don’t consider Messianic Jews to be Jewish; many Muslims, especially in Pakistan, don’t consider Ahmadi Muslims to be Muslim; and the LDS Church once asked journalists to stop using the term Mormon to describe members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
For all these reasons, language guides put out by affinity groups, HR departments, even news organizations, may not always serve a journalist’s needs.
So what’s the solution?
Here are five things you can do to reach a good decision on how to identify people:
1. If you are reporting about an individual, it’s relatively simple: Generally, you should go with how they self-identify. But first ask yourself this: Is this person’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc. necessary to understanding the story? And is it made clear in the story why it’s necessary? If not, clarify or leave it out.
2. If you need to identify a group, seek input from as many sources as possible within that group. Make sure you’ve also consulted your organization’s style guide or newsroom leadership and taken stock of any objections from outside sources.
3. Explain the descriptor (spelling out an acronym) if it’s reasonable to expect that some audiences won’t be familiar with it.
4. Be clear about who and what you are talking about, and make sure to point out the diversity and/or significant differences of opinion about the descriptor within the group, where relevant.
5. And remember, it’s often fine to just say “people.”
Why follow these steps? Because descriptors involve gray areas and complexity and sincere differences of opinion. They are better determined on a per-story basis, rather than expecting newsroom leaders and style guides to deliver all the answers.
Having said that, it’s advisable to have an array of style guides bookmarked — or on your bookshelf! NPR follows the AP Stylebook and also has its own guide. A number of journalism associations also publish style guides (see links below).
What follows here is not a style guide, but a list of a few descriptors journalists have struggled with lately, along with some background on the diverse viewpoints and gray areas — examples of the information you’d want to be gathering in Step 2 above. A number of journalists contributed helpful guidance for these descriptors, and it’s always a good idea to check in with newsroom leaders if you’re still unsure.
AAPI: This acronym, which stands for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, was added to the AP Stylebook earlier this year, with a recommendation to spell it out and a note that it is “widely used by people within these communities but is not as well known outside of them.” Some people feel AAPI covers too broad a range of communities, resulting in the flattening of cultures and erasure of their different experiences, an argument that is made about Asian American as well. When using this acronym, you’ll want to consider whether you’re trying to describe something that truly touches on the identities and experiences of most if not all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — and take care not to use Asian Americans as a synonym for Pacific Islanders.
BIPOC: Stands for Black, Indigenous, people of color. Advocates say it’s more inclusive than “people of color” and centers the particular histories of violence that people have inflicted upon Black and Indigenous people in the U.S. and other countries. Critics say BIPOC is too broad and suggest all the groups represented by the acronym face the same problems, when mass incarceration, police violence and substandard health care disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous people. For more on BIPOC, check out this Code Switch episode.
Gender and pronouns: A person may identify as cisgender, transgender and/or nonbinary. Transgender signifies a person whose gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. Cisgender means it does match. Nonbinary is an umbrella term for people whose genders are not man or woman. They could identify as neither, both or genderfluid. All of these descriptors should be used as adjectives, not nouns. NPR newsroom guidance states that gender identity should be referenced “only when it is directly relevant to the story,” and that terms like “birth sex, birth gender, normal, biological sex, preferred gender and gender of choice” should be avoided. NPR’s guidance on personal pronouns is that they “are a factual detail we should always get right. These pronouns are among the most conspicuous expressions of a person’s gender identity. We should get it right by asking, like we verify the spelling of names.” For guidance on gender and pronouns that is not specific to journalism, see this NPR article.
Indigenous/Native American/American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian: These terms are all preferred over Indian, a colonial-era misnomer.* American Indian historically has referred to the Indigenous tribes of the contiguous United States, while the newer term Native American comprises them as well as Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian peoples. The Native American Journalists Association says American Indian and Native American can be used interchangeably, though some people may have a preference. According to the National Museum of the American Indian, Native American is falling out of favor, and many Native people prefer American Indian or Indigenous American and, whenever possible, to be identified by their tribe.
Latinx/Latine/Latin@/Latino/Hispanic: All are terms referring to people who trace their roots to Latin America and Spain. Latinx (pronounced la-tee-NEX), Latine (la-TEE-neh) and Latin@ (la-tee-NOW) have come into use in recent decades as gender-neutral terms, though Latinx seems to be getting the most traction in the United States. However, its adoption has been limited and mostly among young and college-educated Americans. Many people described by the term haven’t heard it and a majority prefer the term Hispanic, which is criticized for its connection to Spain and is a language-based identity term that doesn’t include Brazilians. While proponents of Latinx see it as a more inclusive term, some opponents consider it unnatural because Spanish, unlike English, is a heavily gendered language. During a recent discussion at NPR with Martina Castro of Adonde Media, Russell Contreras of Axios and Julieta Martinelli of Latino USA, panelists recommended asking people which term they prefer, while keeping in mind that it’s not a big issue for many in the community.
Person-first language: This is when identity follows the word “person,” as in “person with a disability” or “person experiencing homelessness,” rather than the identity-first formulations of “disabled person” or “homeless person.” Person-first language (PFL) is seen as a way of giving primacy to a person’s humanity over their physical or mental condition. One of its first uses was in the 1980s, when activists rejected being labeled “victims” and called themselves “people with AIDS.”
Another person-related language question is whether a descriptor should be a noun or adjective, and it is sometimes an issue when describing race or religion. The National Association of Black Journalists’ style guide recommends “Black people” instead of “Blacks.” Many Jews, on the other hand, would rather be called “a Jew” than “a Jewish person.”
Clearly, labeling groups is not a simple task, but doing the research will go a long way toward producing good journalism. So will approaching the task with humility and recognizing that descriptors are not always permanent and rarely perfect.
Associated Press (subscription required)
Guides published by journalist groups:
*While some Native Americans will refer to themselves as Indian or NDNs, non-Natives using the term might be seen as offensive.
Special thanks to Marcia Davis, Jason DeRose, Nicole Hernandez, Desiree F. Hicks, Gerry Holmes, Jim Kane, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, Whitney Maddox, Danny Nett, Sara Richards, Terence Samuel, Hansi Lo Wang, Pam Webster and Kenya Young.