my bugaboo – the horrors of bias in journalism

My bugaboo is the use of biased language in the media. There, I said it. While I try to focus on my passion for compassion and kindness, when I come across writing in publications or on websites that is subjective and degrades people (or people-to-be) with disabilities, I dissolve into a smoldering rage.

I’ve written about this here.  I’ll keep saying it, and calling writers out every single time until it stops.

There is an easy reason us folks who love someone with a disability cringe at poor choices of words. We have very little control over so few things in the world – how our kids or siblings are referred to is one of the things we try to control. For instance, for the record, in my world, it is:

Down syndrome, not Down’s or Down or Down Syndrome
Boy with Down syndrome not Down syndrome boy
Never ever use the ‘R’ word (I can’t even type it out)

My son is not afflicted, burdened or suffering. He is not unhealthy. He does not have an abnormality or defect. He does not have a disease. The correct language is simple and factual: He is a boy who is living with Down syndrome.  When he was in-utero, he was a fetus with Down syndrome.

The more complicated reason that I am so sensitive to language is this: words hold power. How you describe people with disabilities is a reflection of your own values and misconceptions, and the use of those words in print continues to spread those stereotypes in society.

This is particularly true in the prenatal world.   The power of words is strong there, because you are not talking about a baby you are holding in your arms. The baby is more abstract at that point (although maybe not to the mother), and the use of negative language by the media and health professionals is just ethically wrong.

This is because one word can unduly influence a woman’s choice when she’s pregnant.   And if we really all believe in informed choice like we say we do, that means that there are three choices when there is a chance a baby has Down syndrome or some other prenatally discovered diagnosis:

  1. To continue with the pregnancy and parent the baby
  2. To continue with the pregnancy and place the baby for adoption
  3. To terminate the pregnancy

Three choices, not just one. Just because you would choose #3, it is absolutely and ethically wrong to influence women to make the same decision. And you are influencing women through your biased language.

As a case study, there was a well-written article called Oversold Prenatal Tests Spurn Some to Choose Abortions by Beth Daley in the Boston Globe. The writer had obviously done extensive interviews, and the piece is about prenatal screening communication. This is a really important topic that I can get behind.

However, I almost wept when I saw the language in this piece. Talking about prenatally discoverable syndromes, the writer uses the words:

Birth defect, risk, chromosomal abnormalities, life-threatening condition, false alarm, genetic defects, problem, problematic fetus, serious genetic abnormalities, fetal abnormalities

The worst phrase of all was the horrors of Edwards syndrome, with its heart defects, development delays, and extraordinarily high mortality. The word horrors is used to reference another human being.  How would a mother who has a baby with Edwards syndrome feel reading this?

Journalists, if you use offensive language, you will turn off your readers. You will also unnecessarily influence your audience based on your own value systems. Here’s the simple solution to this: use value-neutral language. I’m not even saying use disability-positive language. I’m just saying use language that is neutral – that doesn’t express your own values one way or another.

Here are examples of value-neutral language v. not:
Chance or probability v. risk
Chromosomal difference v. chromosomal abnormality

The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of Canada has a good article about value-neutral language here.

I’ve been asked on many occasions to review a magazine article or health care pamphlet to ensure the language used about Down syndrome is value neutral. Why not ask your local support society or disability studies faculty if they can review your piece for language? This is a simple step to ensure your writing is as unbiased as possible, and does not cause offense. Even Googling “value-neutral language, disability” during your editing process will help.

As a writer, I think that reviewing your language is just due diligence for a good article. As a mom, I beg you to think about the ethical implications of referring to another human being in such negative terms.  How would you feel if the child you loved was referred to (prenatally or not) as an abnormality or a defect?  People with disabilities are worthy of value and respect. Difference is a part of the diverse human fabric in this beautiful, imperfect world.


5 thoughts on “my bugaboo – the horrors of bias in journalism

  1. Tina Andrews says:

    I’d be interested in your take on the movement by Autistic adults to claim autism as part of their identity. They prefer and speak out passionately about how the neurological differences in their brain permeate all of their experience and just as you would not call them a person with femaleness / maleness they do not want to be called a person with Autism. They are Autistic men and women.

  2. sue robins says:

    Hi Tina – this is a great comment. I am the last person on Earth that would tell other people how they themselves would like to be referred to.

    I do know, generally, in the Down syndrome world, we still use ‘person first’ language. Being a BIG fan of Andrew Solomon, I do believe in embracing and celebrating the identity of people with differences…which of course means being proud of their difference. Right now, in Down syndrome, we don’t use that language, but I certainly understand and respect those who use language that puts that identity first. I do believe we should listen to people themselves and honour what language they prefer…

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