The circumstances in which people are born over which they have no control (e.g., race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, zip code) that impact their opportunities in life. Using terms like “opportunity gap” instead of “achievement gap” can draw attention to the systemic disparities that underserved communities face, and shifts dialogue away from blaming children for their life circumstances.
poor / low-income
Poor or low-income refers to having little money or few possessions. In general, using terms like “poverty” or “lower income” (and explaining how those terms are being defined, for instance by the US Census) is clearer.
Poverty is a transient rather than a permanent state, and can be relative, as when comparing individuals or places (cities, states, countries). Common pitfalls when covering poverty include sensationalizing someone’s circumstances and stereotyping, such as referring to people experiencing poverty as victims or criminals, or as exceptions to these categories.
Public housing is owned or subsidized by government agencies and funding. Terms like “housing projects” or “projects” historically have been used in racist ways. If using these terms, mentioning their history adds important context.
rich / high-income
Since the term “rich” (like “poor”) is vague, it’s helpful to specify income levels or categories where possible and appropriate (X individual makes a seven-figure salary/is a multimillionaire). It’s also important to note the realities of generational wealth.
Rural has a long association with being lower-income and as a euphemism or coded term for “poor.” Not all rural individuals necessarily work agricultural or other manual labor jobs in particular.
The school-to-prison pipeline is a term used to refer to students, often Black students, being pushed into the juvenile justice system through disciplinary actions. If using the term, some explanation is important for context, including the factors such as systemic racism that exacerbate the imbalances among who ends up in the pipeline.
Labor and work associated with providing services to people, as opposed to the creation of goods. Being as specific as possible about the type of job being covered is important for clarity, as is interviewing a wide range of subjects.
sex work / sex worker
Sex work is an umbrella term for any work in which goods and money are exchanged for consensual erotic performances and/or sexual services. A sex worker is a person who engages in sex work. Steering clear of stigmatizing language and coded terms like “massage parlor” helps avoid reinforcing assumptions or generalizations about sex workers’ identities; all kinds of people engage in sex work.
Skilled labor is associated with specialized training or educational attainment. It’s helpful to note an individual’s specific job in coverage when possible, due to the wide range of occupations that can be considered skilled labor. If discussing as a broader category, including how the term is being defined can be useful for clarity.
Last updated 08/05/22
Honest discussions of money and social standing and the myriad factors that determine them are often complicated, and the language of US news coverage tends to reflect that. People may rely on established euphemisms or coded terms when more specific language would be more illuminating.
This section of the Language, Please style guidance aims to help journalists recognize language that’s weighed down in subtext and navigate subjects of socioeconomic status and social standing in a nuanced way.
This resource was informed by questions and discussions from our own newsrooms. It is a living document that will update and expand over time. It is not meant to be comprehensive or the definitive arbiter of language “rules” but instead aims to give context and inform thoughtful decision-making. Have a suggestion for an update, change, or addition? Please get in touch.
How to use: Browse the whole section or search for the term you need guidance on; click into any term for in-depth context, additional resources, and related terms.
Featured term: incarcerated person
An incarcerated person is someone confined to a prison, mental hospital, or similar institution. In general, person-first language, or phrasing such as “X individual, who was convicted of a felony,” puts the focus on the individual rather than one aspect of their circumstances, especially contrasted with terms such as ex-con, felon, convict, and criminal, which risk defining someone solely by their experience with the criminal legal system. In headlines or in shorthand, the term “prisoner” may be more straightforward and humanizing than a term like “felon” or “convict,” since not all individuals housed in jails and prisons are convicted of crimes, and such terms often imply a sense of guilt to the general public.
Jail and prison are not interchangeable: Generally, jail is for those who have just been arrested or are awaiting trial or sentencing, though some serving shorter sentences will do so in jail. Prison is generally for those serving longer sentences.
Featured term: homelessness/houselessness
Homelessness and houselessness are terms for the state of individuals currently lacking a regular nighttime residence. Person-first language such as “people without housing,” “people without homes,” or “person experiencing homelessness (or houselessness)” may read as less stigmatizing than a phrase like “the homeless,” as it reinforces that houselessness is one aspect of someone’s identity that doesn’t define them. “Houseless” or “unhoused” also decouples the concept from the more positive connotation of “home,” and encompasses more than “homeless,” as this could also refer to, for example, living in one’s vehicle.
Featured term: gig economy
Economic activity that centers on using freelance or temporary workers to perform jobs normally associated with the service sector such as food delivery, ride-hail driving, freelance tasks including manual labor (e.g., movers), pet and house sitting, and shopping. More euphemistic terms like “side hustle” are generally best reserved for direct quotes, as this may presented such activities in overly cheery terms that obscure the labor behind them.
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