Basic journalism: How to decide what descriptors to use for people in the news

Estimated read time: 2 minutes

Adding descriptive words around the people certainly can help us flush out stories. They are details.


German-born Christoph Trappe

Christoph, a father of two

Gym rat Christoph Trappe

You get the idea. The list can go on and on and even enter the roam of ridiculousness. Lots of things define and describe me.

Introvert (Yup, I need my quiet time)

Loud mouth (Yup, I can be that too)


Leader (depending on who you ask)

Etc. etc.

And in the news, we see different descriptors of people used.

The other day I saw this headline:

Grandmother accused of murder

Oh wow. Of her grandchild? Nope, somebody else, but they also had grandparents – obviously. Who doesn’t?

See, the grandmother descriptor doesn’t work here. It has no connection to the story. As far as the story told us at least – and that’s really all I – as the reader can go by.

When journalists pick racial or gender descriptors they sometimes get accused of bias, which is probably a fair reaction. Even when it was unintentional by the journalists.

Words matter. We certainly can pick the wrong ones. It happens.

But we can learn.

Only use the words and story pieces that matter. If being a grandmother is irrelevant to a story don’t mention it. If it is, mention it and explain why it is.

The same goes with sharing stuff about crime victims that is irrelevant. Saying that a murder victim had a lengthy criminal history and then listing all crimes without context or storyline – other than that they happened – is not good storytelling or journalism.

It’s just showing off that that’s all the journalist was able to find. Maybe dig for other details – details more relevant?

I’m not picking on journalists here – there are enough out there that do. I still believe that journalism matters.

But audiences weigh every word we publish. Even when just for seconds. And sometimes – many times – they don’t read every thing.

So when we use a description make sure it has something to do with the story. It moves the storyline along and actually relates it to readers.

Saying grandmother, why didn’t we say mother, or wife, or divorcee or whatever? See, they don’t add anything, other than another word.

Ok. I’ve beaten this to death. Only use the words that add something to the story in a way that isn’t misleading.