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A person isn’t an adjective

05/06/2014 6:38 PM

05/06/2014 6:38 PM

Newspapers every day collect short news items into digests that present quick roundups of news originally written for longer stories. That often requires an editor to tighten up and condense many words into just a few.

One such item from the Associated Press ran in The Star’s print edition Saturday like this:

LIFE SENTENCE: A schizophrenic was sentenced Friday in New York to life in prison without parole for hacking a psychotherapist to death with a meat cleaver, capping a case confounded for years by questions about the attacker's mental health. In court, David Tarloff described a constant battle in his mind and pleaded for mercy as he was sentenced on his first-degree murder conviction, a conclusion that came after repeated mistrials and findings that Tarloff was unfit for court.

I heard from a reader with a very understandable objection to one bit of wording in the brief:

Referring to this man as “a schizophrenic” only adds to the stigma that is unfortunately tied to those suffering from mental illness. Schizophrenia is a highly debilitating disease and is even more difficult to treat, but what concerns me is that your newspaper is defining someone as an illness rather than a human being. Although mental illness is not being seen on the same playing field as physical illnesses in our society, disease of the body is one in the same whether it is mental or physical, and all this article does is perpetuate society’s false viewpoint. My only suggestion and hope is that the next time you write a newsworthy story that involves mental illness is that you refer to those involved as someone who is suffering from that illness rather than use it as a defining term.

This isn’t a case of oversensitivity to me at all. It doesn’t necessarily strike me as objectionable to refer to people by the adjectives that describe them — but it has to be on a case-by-case basis.

Advocates for people from a variety of different backgrounds often argue the media should use “people-first” language, e.g. “a man with autism” or “a woman with a learning disability.” I think that can be too inflexible to be instated as an ironclad rule, but I think the example my emailer points out is a good illustration of an instance where describing a man by his illness first simply feels insensitive.

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