Every journalist knows that language is the key their craft. However, it is so often too easy to get caught in the inertia of producing story after story and forget that sometimes it is necessary to go back to basics and examine the building blocks of any story: words.
Editor and Publisher reported that The New York Times has offended the families of some murder victims through injudicious use of language which they feel degrades their departed relatives.
A suspected serial killer recently murdered a series of women in the state of New York. The murderer's modus operandi involved finding women who advertised as escorts on the website Craigslist and then taking their lives.
Unfortunately, when The New York Daily News reported these incidents, the journalists involved frequently resorted to terms such as 'hooker' to describe these victims, particularly when first introducing the young women. This practice isn't merely common in the tabloid press. Take for example, this article published earlier this year, which introduces Melissa Barthelemy as a '24-year-old prostitute' before using her real name.
Surprisingly, in a climate of political correctness and linguistic sensitivity, many newspapers continue to perpetuate an archaic female stereotype. To refer to these women as prostitutes or even worse, before using their full name attaches to them all the controversy along with all the stereotypical and often degrading connotations of such a loaded term. As Sonia Ossorio writes in the aforementioned article, 'blaming the victim and relying on age-old stereotypes of women serves little journalistic value',
In fact this reporting style, of which The New York Times is just an example, has lead the aunt of Megan Waterman, another suspected victim of the same killer, to stop giving interviews to the press.
In light of the recent crisis in public trust which the press must now deal with - thanks in large to The News of the World hacking the phone of another murder victim, Milly Dowler - choosing sensitive and prudent language when reporting such cases is one of the ways in which the press can show their readers that not all journalists are willing to sensationalize, or even adopt unethical tactics, to make a story sell.