Some Advice for Our Friends On the Criminal Punishment Beat

Reporters from local and national media often reach out to AFSC-Arizona for comments on trends and legislation related to our criminal punishment system. But they also ask us to connect them with people who are formerly incarcerated or system-involved. We’re always willing to help, so long as journalists take some advice before filing their stories.

1. Check your biases. What are your beliefs about people who have been incarcerated? About people who have dealt with addiction or homelessness or lived in poverty? Do you believe someone with a “colorful past” doesn’t deserve to be heard to the same extent others do? If you can admit your personal biases, you can correct them. Being objective extends to all your subjects. Fairness should apply to every personal story you tell, including—and especially—those who are part of marginalized communities.

2. Question authority. As a former journalist who’s worked for multiple magazines and newspapers—including Phoenix New Times and The Arizona Republic—I had an editor who once offered, “If your mother tells you she loves you, be sure to get a second source.” In other words, no one is above fact-checking, including our mothers and law enforcement. Police and prosecutors have an agenda just like politicians do. Everyone’s version of the facts—including “official” police records and county attorney filings—should be well-researched and investigated before being published as true.

3. Humanize, don’t pathologize. People who are system-involved are far more than the abuse we suffered as children or the addictions and demons we’ve battled. We’re not looking to be seen as victims; we want to be seen as survivors. Don’t “sideshow” us. Reinforcing our personal victories is an important part of telling our stories. As is giving us credit for our first-hand experience and expertise.

4. Use people-first language. Every newspaper story about someone with a criminal record refers to that person as a “criminal,” a “convicted felon,” an “ex-con,” or an “offender”. We like to use “people-first” language. Like “people who are formerly incarcerated,” or a “person who is system-involved”. We’ve heard from many reporters who think this language is too vague. But it’s no less specific than the aforementioned pejoratives. And we’re confident that if you stick with people-first language long enough, readers will grow accustomed to it.

If you catch your local newspaper reporter or newscast using dehumanizing, stigmatizing language in the stories of people who are system-involved, call them out. Write letters to the editor. Post the stories on social media and educate your friends. The media have spent decades exploiting people who are system-involved in order to elevate their own moral authority. Changing the narrative will take our collective power as readers and media consumers.

By Joe Watson, AFSC-AZ Research & Social Media Consultant

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