Checklist for good language in journalism

There are simple and precise ways in which to talk or write about almost any subject. It is the job of journalists to adopt them. Black people are black people, they are not "coloured". And calling people who were born here and have never migrated immigrants is also not correct.

„We’ve always called it that" is no longer acceptable"

Society is changing - and so is the language we use. Nobody says "Fräulein" to an unmarried woman anymore. In the same way, good journalists nowadays will not use the clearly racist N- or G-words***.

No terms from the Nazi or colonial era

Expressions like “antisocial elements" should have just as little place in journalistic texts as the term “exterminate" or the commemoration of the "Reich Kristallnacht". The same goes for terms from the colonial era such as "Black Africa" or "coloured people”.

No embellishments 

The murder of a woman is not a "relationship tragedy" or “a family drama", in the same way that a mass shooting at a school is not a "schoolyard drama." Anyone who wants to abolish democratic structures is not a "concerned citizen" and those who call for violence against refugees are not "asylum critics”. 

No double standards

If we don’t specifically call a heterosexual marriage a straight marriage, then we shouldn’t call a homosexual marriage a gay marriage. Muslims also murder women, but that does not necessarily make them "honour killings”. Yes, sometimes, „murders to restore a family’s supposed honour“ are committed. But such murders also occur among Christians, for example in southern Italy or Brazil. And one does not call those “honour killings”.

Differentiate and use self-designations

Just because a group is perceived to be homogenous does not mean that it is. We all have more than one identity. Representatives of marginalised groups know best how they want to be designated. For example, “woman with a disability” instead of “disabled person”, “trans*” instead of “transsexual”. Many more such tips can be found in our section “Formulation aids” as well as in our glossary overview.

Gender!

There was a time when which half of the population were” linguistically invisible”. Those days are over. Tips on written gender-equality can be found here.
 

Good Practice: These media are already gender sensitive

In radio and television news the word "people" - meant as a gender-neutral generic term encompassing everyone, is being used more and more often. Many media sources are also using both masculine and feminine designations and it is becoming common to see a gender asterisk or a gender colon in written texts.

ZEIT ONLINE is creative when it comes to gender-sensitivity, depending on the publication and how fitting it is. ze.tt, the young department at Zeit-Online, has been using the gender asterisk for a long time. The taz and other magazines and newspapers are also increasingly showing gender-sensitivity in their articles and illustrations and society is gradually accepting this as the new norm.

The editorial team of bento, the now discontinued publication for younger readers of Spiegel Online, started using gender-sensitive formulations early on, as did many other media for young target groups, such as funk or PULS from the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation: „… “We started by initially using both forms, the male and the female, at the beginning of each article. In the course of the text, we switched so that female and male politicians, male and female educators appeared side by side in our texts - just as they do in reality."

Deutschlandfunk Nova news is also often read with the so-called gender gap – a short glottal stop between the masculine and feminine forms of a noun in German. Since 1 September 2020, Radio Fritz rbb’s Radio Fritz has made speaking with the gender gap the standard. One can occasionally hear this short glottal stop in other radio programmes, mostly those with a younger audience.

Other radio stations go about gendering in a playful manner using the creativity of their presenters and reporters. Presenters use their linguistic imaginative skills to address their target audiences appropriately.

Many editorial offices have discussed gender-appropriate language and whether and how the generic masculine can be avoided. Der Spiegel has recommended doing without it in its editorial guidelines since the beginning of 2020.

Die Frankfurter Rundschau opted for the gender colon in September 2020. Deutschlandradio has published recommendations for gender-equitable language. SWR2 Wissen provides its authors with a guide on how to be gender neutral.

In January 2021, the Tagesspiegel in Berlin adopted guidelines on gender-sensitive writing. Since April 2021, the Generalanzeiger in Bonn wants to ensure gender equality "imaginatively and with stylistic flexibly" and since July 2021, the Mainpost in Würzburg has left it up to its writers whether they want to avoid the generic masculine or not.

Gender-sensitive communication has even reached the ARD und ZDF. Anne Will uses the glottal stop as did ZDF-heute presenter Petra Gerster until her retirement at the end of May 2021. Her successor Jana Pareigis does it too. Claus Kleber uses it from time to time in the heute-journal, so does Ingo Zamperoni in Tagesthemen. The glottal gap can also occasionally be heard in Tagesschau reports.

One of the first to be convinced that gender sensitivity on air is important was Jo Schück, one of the hosts of the ZDF-TV programme ZDF-aspekte, at the beginning of 2020. The NDR has been using gender sensitive language for three years, and the Hessische Rundfunk since the beginning of June 2019.

When I use gender-neutral wording, I can reach my goal quickly and precisely, and that’s important when writing for television. If I say 'students', 'employees' or simply 'the plenum', or if I say 'people' instead of using the separate terms for men and women and all genders it fits for everyone. The same goes for "persons", it's nice and short. Most people’s feedback in the editorial office is positive, they feel happy to take a look at language again and question how they’ve been writing so far.
Nicole Schmutte, Equality and Diversity Officer at NDR

Guest Contribution: Media and people with disabilities

It takes more than pity and admiration.

by Judyta Smykowski

In editorial offices, non-disabled journalists often decide how to report about disabled people. They shape the image of disability. The problem is that prejudices and fear of contact are part of the reporting. Time and again, media professionals fail to recognize the responsibility that comes with their job. Like with all minorities, we have promoted and reinforced negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. If we left out the diagnosis in all reports and articles about people with disabilities, would we still have a story to tell? Is the disability the only reason for our story?

I hope not, because a disability is only part of a person's identity. He or she may have an exciting job, a fascinating hobby, or an interesting family history. I’m not saying we should hide or gloss over a person’s disability. But currently, there are still too many reports in which the only question asked is how it is to live with disability xy. What we ought to do is move away from emotionalizing stories to constructive stories that the entire society can connect to. A person does not suffer from a disability, they live with it.

People don’t suffer from a disability; they live with their disability

Reporting on people with disabilities is still based on widespread views in society on disability. The pitying or admiring portrayal is particularly common. Stories about disabled people who are portrayed as exceptional because they do simple things like play a musical instrument or go to work despite their disability abound. And are enough to evoke one of the two reactions.

Another problem marginalized groups face is that statements referring to individuals are often transferred to the whole group. One person may feel "confined to the wheelchair" after an accident, but it doesn’t mean that all wheelchair users feel “bound” or “confined”. For many, the wheelchair is primarily a way to move from point A to point B and offers mobility, freedom, and independence. All the same, the media continue to use restricting phrases in their reporting.

“Suffering from a disability" is also a common expression used in the media and in German society. Yet the person might not be suffering at all but living a fulfilled life with the disability. What people with disabilities rather suffer is discrimination and the barriers erected by society.

This is a viewpoint the media ought to consider much more often. Don’t focus only on the diagnosed disability, on a person’s life expectancy or their suffering, also focus on the social barriers they encounter and what we as a society can do to break down these barriers.

Calling disability by its name

Disability should be called by its name. Terms such as “Handicap” or "special needs " are an attempt to disguise the uncertainties, even though journalists hold the tools in their hands to remove these uncertainties. Do your research, let the protagonists speak for themselves, and ask them how they wish to be described. 

The wheelchair has become the visual symbol for disability. In photographs, non-disabled models are usually used to portray people with a disability.You can usually recognize this by looking at the position of the knees of the seated person, which are usually too high. Or, if the photo shows only the wheelchair without anyone seated in it, the wheelchair is often positioned at the bottom of a flight of stairs. We need to show authentic pictures of people with disabilities, and these can only be created if people with disabilities are involved.

Seeing other perspectives and taking a step back

Being sensitive with language and imagery is not enough. Calls for Diversität in den Redaktionen are growing louder, but people with disabilities are often left out of this discourse, and this is no longer acceptable. Diversity and inclusion plans must include all marginalized groups.

There is improvement in sight. Websites such as funk or ze.tt targeting younger audiences report on topics of diversity more frequently. But there is still a lack of sustainable projects to support young professionals. We need people in editorial departments and in HR who are willing to create access for journalists with disabilities. This can begin with a ramp in front of the publishing house, but above all must result in the willingness to perceive different perspectives and to take a step back oneself. 

 

Judyta Smykowski heads the editorial team of the online magazine and podcast Podcast “Die Neue Norm” and is a consultant for journalists and filmmakers on cliché-free language and narratives about disabled people as part of her work at Leidmedien.de.

What is Simple Language?

In addition to plain language, there is also simple language. Simple language has fewer rules than plain language. That's why it's easier to explain complicated topics because there are fewer rules to pay attention to. With simple language, you can put a lot of information in one sentence and the sentence doesn't have to be very short.

Many people understand simple language very well, for example children, people who do not speak German well, people with dyslexia, tourists, or people with learning difficulties.

These are some guidelines for Simple Language

  1. Write and speak short and precise sentences. You can use subordinate clauses. The subordinate clauses should not have more than one comma. 
  2. Formulate sentences in such a way that one sentence explains only one thought.
  3. Use doing words in the active rather than the passive voice. Write an active sentence like this. A passive sentence is written like this. 
  4. Refrain from using negations. So don't write "I'm not hungry", but rather "I'm full!" or "She is not a man", but instead "She is a woman".
  5. Avoid foreign words. 
  6. Explain terms that are difficult to understand. 
  7. Avoid stylistic devices, including irony or proverbs. You must explain figures of speech.
  8. Do not use synonyms. So only ever describe the same thing with the same word. Other words for the same things are synonyms and are more difficult to understand.  
  9. Write out abbreviations.

 

Where you can read news in plain and simple language

  • At www.nachrichtenleicht.de you can read news in simple language once a week. And you can read explanations for difficult words.
  • The newspaper  Augsburger Allgemeine offers news in plain language once a week.
    Special examiners check the news.
  • The publishing house Spaß am Lesen Verlag publishes books in plain and simple language.
    There are many books to choose from.
  • The broadcasting stations NDR, SR and MDR offer news from their area of Germany. This is also called regional news.
    The news is in plain or simple language.
  • The website Einfach queer provides information on the topics of gender and sexuality.
  • The illustrators Simone Fass and Inga Kramer make illustrations for texts in plain language.
    Their illustrations are checked by examiners.
  • The Covid Plain Language Corona Leichte Sprache provides information about the Covid virus.
    It explains difficult words.
    And it informs about new Covid regulations.
  • The website einfachstars offers texts about celebrities in plain language.