SNAP stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. While it is still widely colloquially known as “food stamps,” that term has historically had racist and classist connotations. Using the formal name and acronym for the program alongside a brief mention for clarity (“SNAP, sometimes informally known as food stamps”) can help educate audiences.
Social-emotional learning, or social and emotional learning, often shorthanded as SEL, refers to the learning of concepts like stress management, impulse control, problem-solving, and clear communication, to help understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. The concept of SEL has become part of larger controversies around what can or should be taught in schools, with critics arguing SEL is being used to “indoctrinate” students to progressive cultural values. This has led to initiatives in at least two dozen states attempting to restrict SEL. Helpful context would describe the potential effects of these proposed restrictions and how the concept of social-emotional learning has in some instances become divorced from the term itself as a buzzword stoking political divides. It may also be useful to ground coverage in the specific practices and activities being taught in the learning environment you’re reporting on, so the audience can base their understanding on the concrete experiences of students and teachers.
Socioeconomic status affects and is affected by the full range of an individual’s lived experiences, including race, ethnic identity, and adverse childhood experiences. Taking these many factors into account can help ensure thoughtful coverage.
Suburbs refers to a housing district outside of a city’s boundaries but within its metropolitan area. It may be useful in stories that discuss redlining, zoning, or the racial homogeneity of certain suburban areas to note that many of the root causes are part of a lengthy history of racial exclusion. Suburbs do not automatically equate to “middle-class.”
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is a US federal assistance program that provides financial assistance for families. TANF is often referred to simply as “welfare,” though whenever possible, describing the specific program and what kinds of benefits a family is receiving is more precise.
Transitional housing is temporary housing, particularly associated and designed for very low-income and/or houseless individuals or families, sometimes referred to as low-income or subsidized housing. Using specific terminology, such as naming a particular housing program, is helpful for clarity.
Urban is an adjective related to a city, town, or other metropolitan area. It’s often used as a coded term for the racial demographics of a city, including by politicians. Identifying people as “urban” is fraught with subtext, similar to a term like “inner city.” Substituting a term like “city dwellers” can avoid unintended negative connotations.
Vocational is a broad term relating to employment or a specific occupation. When discussing vocational education, it’s important to remember that it is not intrinsically inferior to a more “traditional” four-year undergraduate education.
Welfare is an increasingly outdated blanket term for a variety of government-funded programs intended to provide financial and/or other types of aid to individuals and families. It may be helpful to be specific about the benefits being discussed, or use terms like “public assistance” or “government assistance” if a specific program can’t be named.
White working class refers to non-Hispanic white workers or laborers, particularly associated with manual labor jobs or occupations. The term was heavily associated with the 2016 US presidential election and in some contexts now connotes a particular political stance that may not in fact be accurate.
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.
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.
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.
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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