Framing in journalism

Language is a powerful tool. This may be a hackneyed phrase, but sometimes even people whose working tool is language seem to forget that. An awareness of the contexts and eras from which we borrow terms, and of the ways in which we work with them is equally important. 

For example, people fleeing war and violence are not a natural disaster. Nevertheless, they regularly break over us as a "wave of refugees.” Are we reporting on natural disasters or on people seeking help?

Frames are inevitable - and our choice

In social science, such linguistic images are called "frames". Whether we like it or not, these interpretive frames inevitably trigger certain associations in us. When we hear the word "lemon" we think "sour", and perhaps even taste the sourness of a lemon on our tongues. The terms climate change, global warming or climate catastrophe can describe the same phenomenon and yet generate very different images. If you read about a "wave of refugees", you think of natural forces, a threatening situation and your own powerlessness. At the same time, frames can also suggest possible consequences: How can you prevent waves washing over you? By putting up dams, walls, and barriers

Language triggers certain images in us. It is simply impossible not to frame it. Linguist Elisabeth Wehling illustrates this with the example of a glass of water: we can only describe it as half full or half empty. And by doing so, we always convey a certain perspective. A purely factual description is impossible.

Journalists therefore have a special responsibility when choosing their words. It is up to us “language workers” to decide which frames we want to activate. No term is neutral, but some may be more appropriate and less problematic than others.

Our choice of words begins with how we comprehend reality

How we write and which words we use often says much more about our own view of the world than about the people described. Someone is "suffering from a disability“ or doing something "despite his or her disability" - these are all linguistic clichés about disabled people that persist in the media. Phrases like these mostly come from journalists without disabilities. Here, the word "despite" contains a lot of admiration for people with disabilities - even when they perform normal, everyday things. Such language focuses on the disability of the person and tends to reinforce stereotypes of disabled people - forgetting that often, it’s barriers and social structures that “disable” people.

Often, we write about „xenophobia“, when the topic is really "racism", because often, the people who bear the brunt of "xenophobia" are not foreigners at all. They have been nationals for years or even generations. We describe two almost identical crimes that differ only in the alleged religion of the perpetrator, sometimes as „a family drama“, sometimes as „an honour killing“. In both cases, the choice of terms trivialises such violence and uncritically adopts the perspective of the perpetrators. 

Similarly, reports about trans* people often mention the "actual", "correct" or "real" gender. According to this logic, trans* people switch or change their gender. Generally, this is not the perspective of the person concerned. The same applies to grammatical forms with which (in German) we summarily exclude everyone except men from our reports.

Language is alive

It is important to remember that language is not static. This also applies to self-designations in marginalised communities. Some terms are discarded almost as quickly as they were created, other self-designations are not accepted by all those affected, and then there are those who prefer to adopt English terms and designations. In short, agreeing on appropriate wording is not a finished process. Which is why even in this guide, contradictions can sometimes arise. Is BIPoC or BPoC the right term? It depends on who is meant. And does one say Homophobie or Homofeindlichkeit in German? (The English translation of both words is homophobia.) As of now, in German both terms are acceptable.

Using professional language

The good news is, being language sensitive isn’t that difficult and more and more journalists want to avoid making mistakes. Today, the question no longer is “what is one allowed to say”. Rather, it’s about delivering professional journalism. In this chapter we have put together some suggestions for a more conscious and precise use of language. This comes from language professionals for language professionals.

„If we belong to a group that does not experience a particular form of discrimination, we must learn to believe those who experience that form of discrimination more.“

Prof. Dr. Anatol Stefanowitsch, TU Berlin, in: „Eine Frage der Moral. Warum wir politisch korrekte Sprache brauchen.“, Dudenverlag 2018

Glossaries for more professionalism

  • Since 2014 the Neue deutsche Medienmacher*innen have been publishing a dictionary with language guidelines to help journalists find the right words to report in an immigrant society. Media professionals can order the glossary, which is constantly being updated, free of charge. It is also available online.
  • Sprache schafft Wirklichkeit” (Language creates reality) published by the Antidiskriminierungsbüro(Antidiscrimination Office) provides an overview of common racist terms and offers alternatives.
  • Numerous tips, suggestions and good practice examples for gender-equitable writing can be found on the website  published by the Journalistinnenbund. The website also provides links to many other guides.
  • Brief definitions of the most important terms in LGBTIQ* reporting are provided by the Glossary of Diversity of the Lesbian and Gay Association (LSVD).
  • TransInterQueer e. V. has published a brochure entitled „Trans* in den Medien”. It offers language guidelines for reporting on transgender.
  • The association of lesbian and gay journalists have published a guide with tips on "Writing nicely about lesbians and gay men".
  • Tipps on how to report on the CSD can be found hier.
  • Leidmedien provides guidelines on how to report on people with disabilities.  
  • The German News Agency, Deutsche Presse Agentur, dpa, supplies all its editorial offices with its own „dpa Kompass“, a tool that lists explanations for unclear terms, as well as alternative formulations for critical terms that should be avoided, if possible. For example, since 2015, the DPA has no longer used the euphemistic term "asylum critics" to describe right-wing extremist or radical groups.
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.


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.

Addressing people with disabilities

It’s better to say: X sits in or uses a wheelchair, rides in a wheelchair, or travels in a wheelchair

than to say: he or she is confined to the wheelchair

It’s better to say: X has a disability, or to name the disability
than to say: he or she “suffers from”, which suggests constant pain

It’s better to say: someone has a disability
than: to call the person disabled

Saying: someone has a handicap or a disability is better  
than: calling them disabled

Choose: non-disabled vs. disabled
over: healthy or normal vs. sick

It’s preferable to say: someone is living with a disability
than to say: they are “mastering” it

It’s better to say: People with disabilities do things “with their disability”
and not: “in spite of”

Avoid: using “the blind” when those you mean are “people with visual impairments” or “partially sighted people”

Avoid:  writing “deaf and dumb” or “deaf mute”
and rather use: “person with a hearing impairment”

Treat people with disabilities with respect: Don’t treat them like children, or people who need special protection. And don’t address them as “Du”
Rather: use the more respectful German “Sie”

Do not: refer to people as mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded or subnormal
It is better to say: that they have a learning disability, or learning disabilities

It is better to say: that a person has trisomy 21, or Down's syndrome
than to call: them mongoloid or refer to them as Downies

Avoid: calling people invalids and
rather: refer to them as people who need special assistance

Do not use: the terms midget or dwarf
Say/write: person with restricted growth or person of short stature

It is better: to refer to a person with autism
as: an autistic person

Avoid: talking or writing about mental patients, the mad or insane
It’s better to say: they are people with a mental health condition

Avoid: „the blind”  
and say: „people with visual impairments“ instead

Guide for writing on: LSBTIQ*

Use: Third gender entry
Avoid: Third gender

Since 01 January 2019, German civil status law has added a third gender entry, namely, "divers", in addition to "female" and "male". Before this date, it was already possible to select "no gender". So now, there are four options. "Divers", however, is not a separate (third) gender, but a collective category for all those who "cannot be permanently assigned to either the male or the female gender" -according to the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court). These can be people with very diverse gender identities. 

Use: trans*, trans, transgender people, transident
Avoid: transsexual

Trans* is an adjective and since trans* is not about sexual orientation or sexuality but about gender or gender identity, the term "transsexual" is rejected and increasingly replaced by the other terms. If “transsexual" is used as a self-designation, this should be respected. 

Use: gender reassignment
Avoid: change of sex

The term "sex change" is often used to describe interventions that change the sex of the body. Using this term suggests that trans* people "change their sex" in this way, i.e., that someone was once a woman and is now a man. But this is wrong and does not correspond to the self-perception of trans* people. Sex and gender are more than just biological characteristics and these interventions are experienced as adjustments to gender identity. The body is changed, but the gender identity remains the same even after the reassignment. 

Use: classified as a girl at birth or assigned to the male or female sex
Avoid: "born as a female", "biological" woman

Like the term "gender reassignment" this formulation suggests that a trans* man was once a woman and gives the sex organs the definitional sovereignty over what gender is and constitutes. However, gender is more than a biological characteristic or sexual organs. As Simone de Beauvoir said: "one is not born a woman, one becomes one". A person’s gender identity is what is decisive. Newborns are assigned a gender at birth based on their physical sexual characteristics. For cisgender people this assignment fits, for transgender people it does not. 

Use: lived a long time as a man
Avoid: used to be a man

As in the previous section, the question is what is decisive for gender and what has changed with a person’s coming out as trans*. A trans* woman was never a man. She was classified as such at birth and may have lived as a boy or a man for decades. But she was always a woman, she may not have told anyone for a long time and her appearance and demeanour (gender expression) did not correspond to her female gender identity. So, she lived as a man, even if she wasn't one.

Use: same-sex marriage, marriage for all
Avoid: gay marriage, homosexual marriage

Marriage for all is about opening up marriage to same-sex couples. These are not only male couples, or female couples. Not only homosexual people, bisexual and pansexual people too can marry someone of the same sex. The term "gay marriage" is therefore not only casual, but also imprecise and makes bisexuality invisible.

Say: women, men and non-binary persons or cisgender and transgender women / men / people
Avoid: women, men and trans* persons

Trans* women are also women, trans* men are also men, so they are also included in the list of men and women and do not need an extra mention that implicitly denies that they are "real" women or men. If, for example, a distinction is to be made between men who were already classified as male at birth and those who were not assigned to the male sex, the correct term would be cisgender and transgender men. Not all people are male or female. For example, there are non-binary people who do not (cannot) assign themselves to the prevailing binary gender norm. To include them, saying women, men and non-binary persons would be correct. 

Use: demonstration for the rights of queer people
Avoid: carnivalesque gay parade

CSDs are described in many reports as "carnivalesque". This implies that something is piercingly bright and garish, loud, out of the ordinary; unusual and bizarre. This seems a rather inappropriate way to describe a demonstration for equal rights. Moreover, not only gay men turn up at the parade. CSD also attracts lesbians, bisexual or non-binary people, and calling it a gay parade ignores this fact. 

Use: openly gay
In German, avoid: bekennend schwul(admittedly gay)

Admitting to something is confessing to an act of wrongdoing or to being guilty. Being homosexual has nothing to do with guilt. So avoid saying someone is "bekennend Schwul". The use of this term is evidence of an uptight approach to homosexuality on the part of the person using the phrase.

Use: openly lesbian
Avoid: convinced lesbian

If your aim is to describe women who are self-confident and open about being lesbian, then aren’t all lesbians convinced? There you go. Or do you think there are lesbians who just haven't met the right man yet, to convince them otherwise? Such thinking is just a step away from legitimising assault and sexualised violence. 

Use: Coming-out
Avoid: Outing

Even though the terms are now often used synonymously, they differ. Coming out describes the process in which a person becomes self-aware about their gender and/or sexual identity (internal coming out) or when they begin to talk about it with others (external coming out). Outing, on the other hand, means that a third person makes a queer person's sexual orientation or gender public. Often this happens against that person's will. When a queer person expresses themselves, it is called coming out. If it is about another person making it public, it is called outing.

Helpful tips for reporting in an immigration society


Terms we wouldn’t mind seeing more of in the media

Anti-Muslim racism refers to discrimination against people who are perceived as Muslims based on their actual or ascribed religious affiliation. Other than the term Islamophobie the term anti-Muslim racism refers to the actual problem: a racist conception of Muslims as a homogeneous group classified as foreign to which certain (mostly negative) characteristics are attributed.

Asian German is used as a political self-designation by many persons perceived as Asian. The term explicitly does not refer to specific countries, cultures, or geographical regions. It is a collective term used by a large number of Asian Germans to position themselves and show solidarity for each other in their fight against racism and for more social participation. The Anti-Asian racism that many experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic brought to light the existing racism against Asian Germans.

Calling them Germans without an immigrant background would be the correct way to differentiate the born and bred Germans from those Germans with immigrant backgrounds. When a story is about “Germans” those with immigrant backgrounds are rarely part of the narrative.

Germany is a country of immigration people migrate into the country and become part of the population.However, since by no means all those who come (want to) stay for the rest of their lives, and since many Germans without an immigrant background also move abroad, we could also call Germany a country of migration.

Hate crimes , are any crimes that are targeted at a person because of hostility or prejudice towards that person’s: race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and more. Using the term hate crime is appropriate for naming crimes when those affected are viewed by the perpetrator(s) as "different" and not as people of equal value. In criminology, the terms prejudice crime is used. In scientific terms, what motivates such crimes is group-related misanthropy.

Anti-Israel bias refers to anti-Semitic actions or statements towards or in relation to Israel, its policies or its citizens; for example, when the state of Israel is accused of acting as a secretive mastermind of world politics or, as in secondary anti-Semitism, Israeli policies toward Palestine are compared to those of the Nazis. This form of anti-Semitism is found in both left- and right-wing groups, and among people with and without an immigrant background.

The term "people from immigrant families" does not refer to a statistical figure: The term is used to designate persons who have either immigrated themselves or come from a family of immigrants.

People of Colour (PoC) and Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC) are self-designations of people who have experienced racism and who are perceived as non-white or who do not define themselves as such. BIPoC are not necessarily part of the African diaspora; originally, the term arose in solidarity with Black people. Black, white and BIPoC are political terms that don’t necessarily refer to skin colours. The term is used to reinforce the collective experience between Black and Indigenous people in relation to whiteness and white power and privilege.


Terms that the media can do without

Asylum seeker has a negative connotation. The term is often used when refugees are seen as a threat or burden rather than as those seeking protection.
Alternatives: refugee, exiled people, depending on their status also
persons entitled to asylum, protected persons and many more.

Clan crime is a stigmatizing term that turns entire families of immigrants, including children, grandparents and other relatives into criminals
It is more accurate to speak of organized crime or gang crime.

Refugee crisis is a frequently used buzzword in the asylum debate. It states that there is a crisis because of refugees and assigns responsibility to those seeking protection instead of looking for the causes of problems, e.g., in the failure of government policies or global trade structures. It would be more accurate to speak of a crisis of asylum policy or more neutrally refugee migration.

Xenophobia as a synonym for racism and racist motives is inaccurate since this “fear of foreigners” it is almost never directed at actual foreigners such as tourists. Those affected by the alleged "xenophobia" are often not foreigners at all, they just aren’t white. Describing racist attacks on BIPoC as "xenophobia" or "xenophobic" is adopting the view of the racist perpetrators. It is more accurate to describe the crimes and motives as racist, or as acts of right-wing extremism or right-wing terrorism.

Integration Critic  this is often used to describes people who take the diffuse stand that immigrants generally reject German values and principles. In the past, people with "integration needs" and "integration problems" were referred to as "integration refuseniks" or as people “unwilling to integrate”. This seems to suggest that immigrants willingly and actively segregate themselves, whilst studies show that it is the lack of equal opportunities in areas such as education, the labour and housing markets that often make it difficult for migrants to integrate fully.

Although there is no opinion dictatorship in Germany (Article 5 of the Basic Law on Freedom of Expression), right-wing circles often complain that people can no longer express their opinions freely. The strategy behind this is usually to play down racist statements and to ridicule the use of sensitive language.

Race has been a taboo word in Germany since National Socialism ("race laws"), and the German word is actually no longer used today. Nevertheless, it still exists in numerous legal texts such as the Basic Law ("No one may be discriminated against on the grounds of ... race"). Politicians are currently debating whether to delete the German word „Rasse" from the constitution. It sometimes appears in reports when racism debates from the USA are reproduced. However, terms such as “Rassenunruhen" (race or ethnic riots) or "Rassenbeziehungen” (race relations) should not be translated literally from English. The term "race" has undergone a change of meaning in the USA and, unlike in German, is no longer associated with the doctrine of race, but is used to describe and analyse racist structures.

State broadcasting is a defamatory and factually incorrect term for public broadcasting organisations. In Germany, public broadcasting is financed by a television licencing fee that every household has to pay. The organisations use this revenue to create independent content and provide a varied range of programmes for every group in society. Without interference by of the state or government.

Parallel society is a buzzword that became popular in the early 2000s during the Muslim debates in Germany. The term is diffuse in content and is associated with the notion of "failed integration. It paints a picture of homogeneous minorities who are spatially, socially and culturally isolated from the rest of society. They are accused of being "unwilling to integrate" without taking into account that integration is the responsibility of society as a whole. For instance, the high percentage of immigrants in some neighbourhoods is often more a result of the housing market than of immigrant communities wanting to live in certain areas.

The Z-word word is a foreign term and is rejected by members of the Roma minorities . The denigrating term has its origins in the Middle Ages, but still persists in public usage today. The term ascribes mostly negative, partly romantic, and racist stereotypes to a very diverse minority. Even sauces and schnitzel are still named after the Z- word. And this even though hundreds of thousands of Sinto and Roma were marked with a "Z" under National Socialism and murdered in concentration camps. By the way, Sinto and Roma have been living in Germany for centuries and many of have no migration background whatsoever.


Many more formulation aids, explanations and alternative terms to improve your reporting are also available online in the NdM glossary NdM-Glossar.

Checklist for gender-sensitive writing

For a long time, it was customary in Germany to write everything in the masculine form. Then came the slash and the capital I placed in between a noun. Now in German writing, we have gender asterisks, gender gaps and gender colons. It sounds confusing to some, but in practice it is quite simple. With a little creativity and these tips, gender-sensitive writing is easy.

Be specific.

If you know the gender of the person you are reporting on, you can say so and use the person’s name or the correct gender. In which case it is also especially important to choose corresponding photos or video material to accompany the report.

Weg vom Personalisieren.

Nennen Sie die Tätigkeit und nicht eine Person, die etwas tut. Gendersternchen, Binnen-I und Doppelnennungen braucht es dann nicht. Schreiben Sie zum Beispiel „alle, die Moped fahren” statt „alle Mopedfahrer*innen”.

Work with participles.

The use of participles is another way to get around unnecessarily male-gendered word. "Published by" gets the point across and makes the "editor" superfluous. "Written by" replaces the "author".

Choose gender-neutral terms.

Language is rich in terms that are not fixed to a specific gender. Use them! Here are some examples: 

  • Human beings and people
  • Employees and team
  • Attendees and students
  • Professionals and teachers
  • Parents and siblings
  • Medical staff
  • Media staff

Use relative clauses.

Cyclists should wear a helmet. But so should female cyclists. So why not say: Whoever rides a bicycle should wear a helmet.

Write for the target group.

Use gender-neutral terms or, when writing in German, use gender signs like the asterisk if these are suitable for the readers/audience that you wish to target or when they suit your medium.

Watch out when using male and female classifications.

Mentioning the feminine and masculine form can be done at the beginning of a longer text. And then perhaps one more time later in the text body if it suits the style of the text. However, be aware that using forms such as “ladies and gentlemen” or “stewards and stewardesses” excludes non-binary people. If you use only the masculine and feminine forms, you should make sure that only men and women are meant.

Hinterfragen Sie Rollenklischees.

Wenn eine Doppelnennung zur Gruppe passt, die Sie beschreiben, setzen Sie damit doch mal Überraschungseffekte: Chefärztinnen und Oberärzte oder Expertinnen und Laien.

Pay attention to the flow.

Have you read your text out loud? Does it sound bumpy due to gender sensitive terms? You can probably express what you want to say in a different way. Try it out.

Avoid the generic masculine.

Numerous studies prove that when people hear or read a masculine designation such as pilot or fireman, most of them will think of a man. But the time of exclusively masculine designations is over! Terms that assume masculinity as the default, such as “mankind,” reinforce problematic hierarchies of gender. Replace terms like these with non-gendered alternatives, such as “humankind”.

Play with language.

Be creative and try out different ways to find out which style suits you and your audience. There is no single correct way to gender. The main thing is to give a true portrayal of the person you are writing about or reporting on.

Find more tips and tools on gendering at

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., 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 article: Gender sensitive communication made easy

Gendering starts with research

by Christine Olderdissen

Jana Pareigis, Ingo Zamperoni and Rudi Cerne all use gender sensitive language. Jana Pareigis like her predecessor Petra Gerster expresses her gender sensitivity by using the glottal gap. ARD presenter Ingo Zamperoni talks about men and women in the Tagesthemen with ambiguity. Even Rudi Cerne sometimes corrects his sentences on "Aktenzeichen XY ...ungelöst" with: " ... or the other".

Many journalists strive to represent gender equality in language. There is still a lot of uncertainty when naming trans*, intersex or non-binary people. Written gender signs such as asterisks, colons and underscores are attempts at inclusive language, as is the use of participles. However, these written methods are often met with negative reactions. In interviews, Petra Gerster reported that she had received up to 60 protest letters a day when she started using the glottal stop as a sign of gender inclusivity. It is mainly older people who are annoyed by this new use of language.

Gender-inclusive texting is possible without the gender asterisk

The generic masculine is a linguistic convention meant to include everyone. However, since it has come under heavy criticism, using such gender-biased language works less and less. In a sentence like: “Every day, each citizen must ask himself how he can fulfil his civic duties” the question is obvious: Are all citizens male?

To give journalists impulses for more gender equality, the Journalistinnenbund e.V. launched the website at the end of June 2019. Thanks to two and a half years of project funding from the Federal Ministry for Women's Affairs, we have expanded it into a comprehensive web portal and show that gender-sensitive writing is possible with and without the gender asterisk.

Debating gender-sensitive language from home offices

When at the beginning of 2020 ZDF employee asked: "Who is already using gender-neutral language?" we named the online formats bento, and Deutschlandfunk Nova, feminist magazines and the NDR. By the end of the year, we declared 2020 the "Year of Gender Sensitive Communication", because so much had happened that year. In January, Aspekte presenter Jo Schück used the glottal stop for the first time on ZDF television, and in the news programme Heute-Journal, Claus Kleber was amused at his own attempts at gender neutrality. From May onwards, one noticed that Anne Will had begun to use gender neutral language and others started to follow. Since September 2020, the glottal stop has also been adopted by the news readers on rbb’s Radio Fritz. 

The year of gender-neutrality was also the year of the Covid pandemic. Editors of daily newspapers, weeklies, talk shows and cultural programmes organised the gender debate from home. Sometimes they produced opinion pieces by female writers and others who work with language. Sometimes linguistics were given the opportunity to present pros and cons of more inclusive language. For more than 30 years, language studies have been debating the question: "How masculine is the German language?" At times editors or producers extended invitations to their audiences/readerships to participate in the debate.

A turning point in German journalism

While behind the scenes editorial offices were thinking about how to achieve more gender equality in their programmes and publications, the media were fuelling the fires. In 2021 none of the conservative print publications used the gender asterisk, but the Frankfurter Rundschau stuck to the “gender colon”. The Tagesspiegel and the Generalanzeiger used other forms of gender-sensitive language in their articles, and GEO magazine explained their policy towards more inclusive language. Following the many complaints that radio stations got, many of them backed away from gender -inclusive language, used it only for younger target groups or in their social media channels.

June 2021 was a turning point, with German-language news agencies announcing their intention to report in a more "discrimination-sensitive" way and to "push back the generic masculine", while finely avoiding the irritating mention of gender sensitivity, because it is about more than just avoiding the generic masculine. #Metoo, #Metwo and the debate about #BlackLivesMatter have increased the pressure on journalists to recognise and avoid stereotypes, be inclusive in their choice of words and avoid omissions that make others invisible.

Follow-up training in journalistic writing

The gender debate has made further training in journalistic writing necessary. Accurate terminology and phrasing are important in writing about people respectfully. Terms that assume masculinity as the default reinforce problematic hierarchies of gender and need to be questioned: Who is meant? Which genders are being addressed? Can I write in a gender-neutral way, or should I explicitly mention women and all other genders? Many have understood the necessity of inclusive language.

"Gender-sensitivity begins with research" is our motto. This is also Der Spiegel’s view. From March 2020 to February 2021 the magazine counted how many times men and women were mentioned. The results were 107,000 for men and 28,000 for women. Shocked by the result, editor-in-chief Steffen Klusmann said: "There have long been enough female politicians, CEOs, scientists, teachers, doctors, historians. It's part of our job to discover them."

According to the press code, journalism is about reporting truthfully and carefully. It’s also the duty of media to make women visible, to get them in front of the microphones as interview partners and to report about them respectfully, without sexist language.

Christine Olderdissen is the project manager at, the web platform of the Journalistinnenbund for gender-sensitive media work.

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 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

What is Plain Language?

Plain language is a simplified form of the German language. 
The aim is to ensure that everyone understands it as quickly, easily, and completely as possible. 
Because only then can all people have a voice and a say.
One can speak in plain language.
And one can write in plain language.

Who needs plain language?

Johanna von Schönfeld is 30 years old.
She has Down syndrome.
She would like to see more services in plain language. 
She says: "There are many topics where I don’t have a voice. 
I need someone to explain to me in plain language what some things mean. 
Because I am concerned about what is going on in the world.”

People who need plain language:

  • People with learning difficulties
  • People who speak little German or are still learning German
  • People with reading difficulties
  • People with dementia

And many other people.
That's about 10 million people in Germany.

So far, there is no legal obligation for the use of plain language.
This means that the state neither covers the costs for translations into plain language nor for interpreters.
This means that media outlets get to decide: 
What gets translated into plain language? 
And what not?
The users do not get to make that decision.


These are the 16 most important rules for plain language

  1. the sentences are short.
  2. there are no subordinate clauses.
  3. there is only one piece of information in each sentence.
  4. plain language uses words that all people know.
  5. the same word is always used for the same thing.
  6. plain language does not use abbreviations.
  7. difficult words are explained.
  8. long words are separated with a hyphen.
  9. or with the middle dot.
  10. this makes them easier and quicker to read.
  11. plain language uses a lot of verbs. 
  12. plain language is an active language. 
  13. the passive voice is not used in plain language.
  14. plain language does not use the genitive and the subjunctive.
  15. plain language does not use figures of speech and metaphors, i.e. language images.if used, they are explained.
  16. easy language describes things as precisely as possible. Sometimes with the help of examples.



How to be gender-sensitive in plain language

The first help manuals for plain writing stated:
In plain language, do not use gender-sensitive words. 
Use only the masculine form.
Because it is shorter.
And it is often easier to read.
But many users of plain language find that:
You also must be gender-sensitive in plain language.
Only then do all people feel included.
Various special symbols can be used for gender-sensitive writing in plain language.
For example, the gender asterisk.
It looks like this: *.
Or the colon.
Or the gender gap.
It looks like this: _.
But it is important to explain these special characters:
You must explain:
What does each special character mean?
Why is it used?
Then users of plain language can also understand texts well.

What media services are available in plain language?

Media offerings are for example:
Websites, newspapers and magazines, radio programmes and podcasts, television programmes and books.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states:
All these media services must also be available in plain language.

So far, there are only a few media offerings in plain language.
They mainly contain information about politics.
Or laws and treaties.
Texts on many other topics are not available in plain language.
There are only a few texts that people can read just for fun.
And there is no daily news offering in plain language.
So far, news in plain language is only available once a week.

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 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.