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January 22, 2019

"Shifting how journalists talk about people in prison"

Given that I sometimes feel a bit like a journalist when doing certain types of blogging, I found interesting and effective this new Columbia Journalism Review piece (which carries a headline that I used as the title of this post).  Here are excerpts from the piece:

Prisons are often “dangerous and inhumane spaces of abuse and degradation,” Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a law professor at NYU, says.  Yet a great deal of mainstream media prison reporting, in his view, is “misleading and dehumanizing” and “presented with no context or insight.” At a time when the flaws in our criminal justice system are well-known and well-documented, experts and advocates say a shift in how the media covers prison and people impacted by incarceration is long overdue.

It’s bad enough when the story in question is about food (which in prison is hardly known for its quality, Stevenson notes).  It’s worse, though, when it comes to more grave matters, such as murder, suicide, and abuse, which are unfortunately common in prisons.  Then, Stevenson says the impact of language is all the more damaging. “Instead of reporting in a way that exposes the tragedy of prison violence, we get headlines like, ‘Convicted rapist stabbed to death,’” he explains.  “The media presents the victim as if he could only be the crime he was convicted of. It happens all the time, over and over again.”

Last spring, for example, a Newsweek article asked, “Who were the South Carolina inmates killed in deadliest U.S. prison riot in 25 years?”  By way of answer, the story offered only the men’s names, sentences, and crimes.  “Cornelius McClary, 33, was serving 25 years for first-degree burglary and battery, firearms provision and criminal conspiracy in Williamsburg County in 2011,” read one mini-obituary. When a person is reduced to their crime at the outset, advocates say, it’s no surprise when challenges to their worth and dignity follow....

Alex Gudich, deputy director of the criminal justice reform group #cut50, gives the media some credit for tracking and exposing the failures of today’s criminal justice system, as well for helping champion reform, in the case of some outlets.  Even well-meaning stories can fall short, however, he says, by leaning on stereotypes and failing to count the perspectives of those who are incarcerated or who have been impacted by incarceration.

Among fixes for journalists, Gudich and his colleagues at #cut50 — which was founded in 2014 with the goal of reducing America’s prison population by half within ten years —recommend starting with person-centered language.  That is, “people in prison” or “incarcerated persons,” as opposed to “convicts” or “inmates.”  This is an ongoing culture shift that began in the criminal justice reform community several years ago but that hasn’t yet caught on in media, Gudich says....

But it’s not just a matter of semantics. “One of the reasons prison and criminal justice reform have been so difficult to achieve is how we talk about people who are incarcerated in this society,” says Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and director of the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia Journalism School. “As long as we’re talking about people only in terms of what they’ve done wrong, it’s easy to camouflage the fact that we’re talking about human beings.”...  

Advocates also recommend doing more to incorporate information other than what is provided by prison workers and the police. This presents challenges, they acknowledge, given the famous opacity of prisons and jails, the reticence of defense attorneys to allow clients to speak with the press, and the general business of public defenders.  But direct access to people who have been accused or convicted isn’t the only way to introduce balance into prison stories: experts on prison conditions abound, as do family members of prisoners.  In the wake of the holiday meal stories, Chandra Bozelko, a formerly incarcerated writer and reporter who comments frequently on prison-related issues, received calls from only a handful of small podcasting outfits. “If a tiny little podcast with, like, no staff at all can find me, so can a major newspaper,” Bozelko says...

Bozelko, by her description, is less of a “word hawk” than some advocates.  She’s not as offended by the word “felon,” for instance, as she is by factual inaccuracies in stories by reporters who seem to never have stepped foot inside a prison.  As for the inaccessibility of American prisons, she proposes an easy solution: hire more reporters with criminal records. Bozelko points to Keri Blakinger of the Houston Chronicle, who spent time in prison between 2010 and 2012 — and whose reporting has recently netted changes to dental care for prisoners in Texas, in addition to the firing or resignation of five prison workers involved in a scheme to plant evidence in prisoners’ cells.

None of this is to say it’s a reporter’s job to swing to prisoners’ defense, Bozelko says.  Ultimately, she just wants to see more nuance from mainstream outlets and an acknowledgement of the circumstances, bad luck, and structural factors that often feature heavily into the real stories prisoners have to tell: “Regardless of what a person did, prison wasn’t in their plan, and it’s not who they are.”

January 22, 2019 at 11:05 PM | Permalink


I would love to see a journalist do stories on prisoners. The reason they ended up in prison, if they have proclaimed innocence, background & family, how long they have been incarcerated, unequal justice, ect. - I am not talking about mass murderers that have been caught in the act. Cases that are more domestic then Federal need a good investigative reporter. Human beings were not created to be caged for life. Jail/prison is supposed to correct the way they acted by a punishment (if guilty). Most people selected for Jury Duty are knowledgeably incompetent and don't really want to be there. The Judge appoints certain people in certain districts to notify potential jurors and a corrupt judge works with a corrupt DA to use only a certain list in favor of the court.

Posted by: LC in Texas | Jan 23, 2019 9:19:51 PM

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