Walter Lippman wrote in the early 1900s that people have pictures in their heads composed of stereotyped images, and views of reality are formed to a great extent by images channeled through the media. Aly Colon of the Poynter Institute wrote, “As journalists, we need to be as accurate and specific as we can be in describing people.
Certain words serve more as labels than as descriptions. And labels conjure up stereotypes and inaccurate images.” By letting stereotypes creep into everyday usage, copy editors participate in labeling people.
People who are categorized by race, ethnicity, gender or other means end up lumped, often unfairly, into simplistic generalizations. Part of the copy editor’s job is to prevent perpetuation of stereotypes. Three stereotypes copy editors try to avoid are racism, sexism and ageism.
Media organizations have guidelines on dealing with these sensitive topics. When approaching these subjects, copy editors do well to follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unless age, race, gender, sexual orientation, physical condition or mental illness are necessary in a story, don’t include it. If it’s not relevant, don’t use it.
Racism can affect people’s lives profoundly, from how they are treated, whether they get jobs, and even their self-images and attitudes. Ethnicity and national origin can wrongly carry stereotypes too. All members of one ethnic group cannot be placed into one general category. Few copy editors practice racism consciously, but still some subtle prejudices can spill over. One goal for copy editors is to have prejudice-free copy.
Copy editors learn to avoid making assumptions and generalities about race and socio-economic status. They need to be aware of what various racial and ethnic groups prefer to be called. Calling a group of people what they prefer shouldn’t offend them, experts say.
Two examples of how names of ethnic groups have changed are for African-Americans and Latinos. At various times in the 20th century, African-Americans were known as “coloreds,” “Negroes,” “blacks,” “Afro-Americans” and finally “African-Americans.” People descended from Spanish-speaking cultures have been referred to as “Chicanos,” “Latinos” and “Hispanic.” Many prefer “Mexican-American.” “Latino” and “Latina” are adjectives meaning Spanish-speaking or descended from Spanish-speaking people from Mexico, Central or South America, or the Caribbean. Since the 1980s, the U.S. government has used the term “Hispanic” to refer to all people of Spanish-speaking heritage.
Our culture continues evolving away from gender-insensitive language. Most professions are referred to in non-sexist terms, such as astronaut, doctor, chemist, teacher, engineer, mail carrier, flight attendant and server. Copy with “male” or “female” in front of the noun needs to be edited, unless the gender-specific term is necessary for clarity.
In editing references to a man or a woman, copy editors must strive for consistent, equal treatment. If a man is referred to by his last name, refer to a woman by hers. This consistency extends to details such as age, appearance and marital status. Most style guides state that last names are used in second and subsequent references without a courtesy title.
Non-derogatory and non-offensive terms can be used to describe sexual orientation, but a person’s sexual orientation should be omitted unless the information is vital to the story. Editors can check with style guides for acceptable terms. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association has a stylebook supplement for more clarity on LGBT terminology.
Editors can avoid bias against age issues through judgment and objectivity. We live in a youth-oriented society where baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Age is relevant in stories about Medicare, Social Security, retirement homes and long-term-care facilities. Editors can monitor copy to prevent ageism stereotyping. An accurate approach in dealing with age is to give the person’s specific age if necessary.
Use caution when describing people with disabilities and medical conditions. Put a positive accent on the person rather than dwell on impairments. A person with a disability has a medically defined condition that substantially limits major life activities. Not all disabilities are visible or physical.
Copy editors can distinguish between “disabilities” and “handicaps.” Disabilities are physical, mental or psychological impairments. Handicaps are environmental or attitudinal barriers to disabled people. Stairs are handicaps to workers in wheelchairs. In copy editing, make it “wheelchair-accessible.”
Use precise language to describe disabilities, and avoid derogatory terms. Go for a positive slant: heart attack survivor, not heart attack victim. People with disabilities usually have “conditions,” not diseases. However, diseases are mentioned in news accounts when someone is hospitalized or dies.
Copy editors have been described as the last gatekeepers before information reaches the audiences. By being aware of stereotypes, they can prevent stereotypes from being perpetuated.
Gene Murray joined the Grambling State University mass communication faculty in 1992 after working 12 years as an Army public affairs officer. He has worked on daily, weekly and military publications and wrote the textbook “Effective Editing.” Email him at
Tagged under: diversity