Word Choice When Reporting on Inequality: A Conversation with Authors Denise Wagner and Sally Lehrman

Sally Lehrman and Venise Wagner are co-authors of Reporting Inequality: Tools and Methods for Covering Race and Ethnicity,” which aims to give journalists an understanding and strategies to aid them in reporting on the complex topic of disparity. 

Lehrman is an award-winning journalist who has covered the science beat, as well as social issues related to that beat. She is also the CEO of The Trust Project,  a nonprofit whose goal is to, “amplify journalism’s commitment to transparency, accuracy, inclusion and fairness so that the public can make informed news choices.” 

Wagner is a journalism professor at San Francisco State University and was previously a reporter for both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. 

They talked with Covering Poverty’s Savannah Ware about how to use careful word choice and how to visually represent poverty in journalism coverage. Their comments were trimmed for length and clarity.

“Reporting Inequality” is authored by Venise Wagner and Sally Lehrman. The 2019 book is a tool for journalists to refer back to when covering race and ethnicity. (Credit/Venise Wagner)

What are your thoughts on the importance of word choice in this sector of journalism?

Wagner: I think word choice is super important. The thing I tried to avoid is adding a label on a person because I think that is dehumanizing. So for example, I would not say he is a homeless person. He is a person who is experiencing being homelessness. I would try to change that nomenclature. I think emphasizing that they are people, that helps. They’re not labels. I even have a problem with some of the acronyms that are being used right now with people of color like when people say POC. I don’t mind saying the word people of color but when you reduce people to an acronym, it’s so dehumanizing. 

Lehrman: This happened in covering things like health. I was early on in the coverage of AIDS. We talked about people with AIDS, not AIDS victims or patients.

What are your thoughts on terms such as homelessness versus houselessness?

Lehrman: It makes you think a lot about: What is a home? You can definitely make a home on your own but at the same time there are certain external factors that enable you to make that home. Maybe there are other terms that we need to come up with. I think there’s an idea about trying to empower people, but at the same time there’s these external factors and institutions that are shaping our lives that are often based on geography, gender, and so on that we really want people to understand and think about.

What are your thoughts on photojournalism in this sector of journalism? Should people experiencing homelessness be pictured at all?

Lehrman: I’m thinking of a story we used in one of our workshops where there was an image of a man in a tent, he was formerly a sommelier, and he had a bottle of wine on the table, we don’t know why. We don’t know anything more than it was sitting on the table. People went right to, “Oh it’s his fault. Clearly his homelessness is his fault.” Be really careful about what is being communicated in that photo that you may not even be thinking about. I don’t know if we always  apply the same level of scrutiny to our photographs as we do to our stories. What kind of things are there that your audiences may pick up on and attach to their existing stereotypes or their existing ways of thinking and models? 

Wagner: I think the key here is making sure you don’t replicate stereotypes, but that’s tricky. For example, here in the Bay area African Americans are more likely to be homeless than whites or Latinos, but the pictures that you see often are not of African Americans and so you kind of get this sense that the problem of homelessness does not hit one community more than the other. At the same time there’s concern that you don’t want to stigmatize an entire race of people. How do you deal with that? You have to be really careful about what the photo is communicating. Is it perpetuating a stereotype? Photos can’t stand alone. The photos are part of the story, which hopefully is explaining why what’s happening is happening in the photo. 

Lehrman: If there were primarily African Americans being depicted in these photos about people who are experiencing homelessness, that’s fine if the story is actually explaining why that predominance is happening. 

Wagner: You want to get the context. It just points again toward making sure that those photos can’t be used to perpetuate stereotypes and also don’t trigger implicit stereotypes.

Lehrman: Photographers can’t be passive in taking their photos. They have to be active reporters taking those photos, asking those questions why. 

Savannah Ware is a fourth year majoring in journalism at the University of Georgia.

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