Hey, media, mind your language

Originally published in AZCapitolTimes.com

As a lifelong communicator, I’ve developed a keen awareness of the impact that language has on perception and behavior. This understanding deepens my concern as I reflect on the statistics around America’s incarceration rates: as of mid-2022, more than 663,000 individuals were held in local jails—a 4% increase from the previous year.

The usual suspects in this troubling trend are often identified as political gridlock and a punitive justice system with a skewed profit motive. But there’s another, subtler player at work: the media. The power of the press to shape narratives and influence public sentiment is unparalleled and, in the case of criminal justice, not always wielded with due care. Case in point: The recent headline labeling individuals affected by Governor Hobbs’ legislation for voting rights restoration as “convicted felons.” Such language is not merely lazy; it’s harmful, perpetuating a stigma that haunts people long after they’ve paid their dues.

In a society where headlines often spawn snap judgments, the choice of words can skew the narrative toward compassion or contempt. The term “convicted felon” is laden with negative connotations and fails to consider the complex journey of individuals beyond their interactions with the justice system. It is not just a term; it is a life sentence to stigma long after time has been served.

A study by FWD.us underscores this point, detailing how media portrayal contributes to the escalation of mass incarceration. It is an unyielding reminder of the media’s power to shape discourse and, by extension, lives.

The narrative spun by such language is not only detrimental to the individuals labeled but also to the society that shuns them. As the head of Marketing for Televerde, which built its company around providing opportunities to incarcerated women, I have witnessed the transformative power of positive reinforcement and education. These women, often referred to by their charges, are not static characters in their life stories—they evolve and grow.

It’s high time the media recalibrated its moral compass and recognized its potential as a force for good. Instead of casting a shadow over those seeking redemption, it is imperative to shine a light on paths to reformation. Language can either empower individuals or strip them of their rights. It can be used to elevate people’s status or as a weapon to marginalize and exclude them. Proper usage of language can help to create a more equitable society, while the misuse of it can perpetuate inequality. It is the media’s duty to wield it with conscious intent.

In the shadow of the Arizona headline, it’s easy to lose sight of the truth—that these so-called “convicted felons” are, more aptly, neighbors, parents, children, and friends striving to contribute positively to their communities. If the media took the time to look, they’d find countless stories of resilience and renewal. Televerde stands ready to share them, to change the conversation from one of perpetual punishment to persistent potential.

The media must recognize its role in this pivotal moment of societal change. We urge journalists, editors, and publishers to rethink how their language impacts the lives of millions and to choose a narrative of hope and second chances. Only then can we begin to dismantle the barriers erected by words and rebuild in their place bridges to a more inclusive and just society.

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