Prison Journalism Navigator

Working With Communities of Color Inside

Reporting on incarcerated communities of color is tricky because so much of prison life revolves around race. PJP’s writers have written about how people inside eat and socialize within their own racial groups, and how there are consequences when they are found interacting with people from other races and ethnicities. There are even separate barbers for Black people and White people, and in many prisons, members of the advisory council (who interact with the prison administration) are chosen specifically to represent their racial communities. 

This makes it all the more critical for journalists and newsrooms to take extra care with their choice of words when depicting people, their communities and the dynamics between them. Reporters have to write about the realities of incarceration without reinforcing stereotypes. 

We must be cognizant of how non-White communities such as Latin, Arab, Asian, Black and Native American people, have been historically subject to prejudice in the news. 

When writing about incarceration, it is unavoidable to talk about crimes and convictions, but it is important to make sure that you are referencing it in the context of a specific story involving a specific person in a specific context. 

For example, 9/11 was an act of terror perpetrated by specific individuals affiliated to a specific group. Yet since then, much of the news and entertainment media have depicted Muslims and Arabs as murderers, religious fanatics and villains. South Asian and Black Muslim men have also been regarded with suspicion. Be cognizant of the history of non-White incarcerated communities frequently being painted as criminals, terrorists or drug dealers. In some cases, non-White incarcerated communities are referred to interchangeably, despite racial differences and lived experiences. All of this can contribute to entire groups of people feeling degraded and dehumanized. 

PJP urges newsrooms to include the broader context behind every story. For example, Black and Latino people — especially men — are arrested, convicted and incarcerated at a disproportionately higher rate than their White counterparts. That means that every prison always has more Black and Brown people than White people. This is important context to consider when reporting on numbers and percentages of communities. 

The following are suggestions for how journalists and newsrooms can publish stories around incarceration without perpetuating racial prejudice and fear. 

  • Steer clear of loaded descriptors like terrorist, criminal, Islamic fanatic, unless it is part of a quote or referred to by a source or in a document. Instead, describe the action. For example, “act of extremism” or “act of terrorism.” 
  • Be careful of inadvertently perpetuating stereotypes or tropes based on an individual’s appearance, clothing, name, religion (i.e. turban, beard, headscarf). Consider whether a racial description is relevant to a story. For example, referencing a Muslim individual’s religion in a story about incarceration that has nothing to do with religion could shape a reader’s perception about the connection between Islam and incarceration. 
  • Discuss word choices with your incarcerated collaborators. When collaborating with writers and reporters inside, they may use harmful language that they hear others using to describe themselves and their communities. Sometimes the word choice is deliberate, but it may not always be so. Consider discussing with them the implications of their word choices and inviting them to rephrase their sentences. 
  • When incorporating personal opinions that touch on racial, ethnic or ideological divides, make sure the source and your attribution is clear, so it does not appear that you or your publication is upholding that view. If the viewpoint is factually incorrect, consider not referencing it. If there is a reason to include it, articulate your reason and explain that it is factually incorrect. 
  • Be careful of incorporating dialect that could make a speaker seem ignorant. Consider fixing simple and obvious grammatical mistakes even when they are part of quotes. PJP abides by the National Association of Black Journalists style guide which says the following: 

    “Language forms, particularly oddities of pronunciation and syntax, that are peculiar to a region or a group. Avoid using dialect if it renders the speaker as ignorant or makes the person a subject of ridicule, even in quoted material. In rare stories, use of dialect may be approved as bringing a sense of atmosphere that could not otherwise be achieved. Such approval should come from the department-head level. Obviously, further exception is made when dialect itself is news, such as in a story in which it is pertinent to the identification of a crime suspect. If dialect is to be used, words are spelled phonetically and apostrophes indicate missing sounds. Be accurate and avoid exaggeration.”
  • Widen the story angle to include data and other background information that could provide a broader context for the story being told. Sometimes it is helpful to point out how racism and biases based on skin colors, gender, religion, sexual orientation and other factors contribute to how a person is treated inside prison.  
  • Although race is an important factor inside prisons, when reporting on incarceration, it may not always be the case. Be careful about making connections that may not exist. Consider whether race is actually relevant to the story.  If you are working on a story about prison jobs, is race an important factor? It may be if there is suspicion that job assignments are based on race, but otherwise, it may be unnecessary information. 
  • When writing about a racial conflict or riot in prison, be clear that this is a specific incident, and provide as much context as possible about the events that led to the incident.