For anyone, reporters included, who works with sharing information and explaining complicated issues with nuance, it’s crucial to use precision and empathy in framing, reporting, and writing articles. Context shapes words, and while it can be easy to fall back on familiar, if not archaic, terms and labeling conventions in the churn of a breaking news cycle, failing to think through language use can be harmful, inaccurate, or both — to sources and to a broader audience.
That’s where “conscious language,” a term coined by writer and editor Karen Yin, can be helpful.
Yin had the idea to start Conscious Style Guide and the accompanying Conscious Language Newsletter while working in advertising in 2011. They don’t frame words as “good” or “bad,” instead laying out articles and guides that introduce writers and editors to discussions around different language. On her website, she explains:
“I coined the term conscious language to describe language that promotes equity, used skillfully in a specific context. Using conscious language involves asking yourself questions such as:
- What are my assumptions about my audience?
- Will this cause harm to historically excluded communities?
- How will history alter the impact of my language choices?”
They launched both in 2015, and the resources have since become recognized by several organizations, from Poynter to Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. They’ve also founded the Editors of Color database to help connect editors of color to jobs and vice versa.
Objective editor Janelle Salanga spoke with Yin about the style guide and newsletter, conscious language as an accuracy and equity conversation, and why she’s kept the conscious language resources free.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You started The Conscious Style Guide and The Conscious Language Newsletter in 2011. How have your focuses and approach to the website and newsletter changed since then?
When I started this, I really wanted to make it as dynamic, as not static as possible. And because I had a bit of knowledge with building websites, I was able to control everything myself. I’m still the only person who designs my website. Because I had tech knowledge, and I had been an editor for — back then, it was over 20 years — and as a member of multiple marginalized, historically excluded communities, my vantage point into conscious language and conscious style in general was ideal. And I also have a journalism background. And I also am a writer and copywriter. I didn’t need to hire anybody. I was able to consolidate all of my talents and skills, and initially create the website and the newsletter.
The website, in the very beginning, already had a compilation of static resources, things like community style guides that are produced by the marginalized communities [themselves]…I went directly to the source. Part of my reason for wanting to create Conscious Style Guide was because, as an editor, I found all these really amazing guides from these communities very clearly saying, “This is how we would like you to frame our stories. These are the narratives that are wrong that we’re trying to counter. These are stereotypes, please avoid them. This is our preferred terminology.” And the problem with these guides was that they were really hard to find — you had to kind of know where to go.
I knew that once I started this website, I would run it like a business. That kind of makes me laugh now, because I’m not asking for money. One of my goals was to present everything for free, so that it could be as accessible to anybody, as much as possible. I didn’t want money to be a barrier for them to access this and for them to also learn and spread this knowledge.
I already had articles that were presented like a range of thinking on one topic. So from the get go, I already had articles on, for example, person-first language versus identity-first language, and a lot of other interesting things that a lot of editors [at the time] were not familiar with. I would like to think that through this platform, I’m able to bring a lot of complexity and gray areas to things that editors previously thought of as binary: either right or wrong or good or bad. I wanted to kind of infuse everything with more of a question and also emphasize the importance of really looking at your specific audience — who exactly you’re speaking to, using language that’s relevant for them, that makes sense to them — instead of going by a list of terms and saying, “Well, these words are bad, and these words are good, and I’m going to stick to that.”
I want people to actually think more contextually and avoid what I think of as “politically correct language.” The more you work with conscious language, I hope that people realize there is no such thing as “correct” language, or “bad” language. It’s all about context. It’s how you support it with the context. It’s also the historical context that can change the content of what you’re writing about. So this is why I called it conscious language to begin with. I coined this term because the word “conscious” captures awareness, conscientiousness, and intention, and I wanted that to be the driving force, as opposed to following external guides that may or may not actually be relevant for your topic.
What has been the response to this approach to language, moving away from using a binary to evaluate language?
When I started Conscious Style Guide in 2015, I already had an irreverent blog called AP vs. Chicago, where I had a sort of fan base because I would write about style in a funny way. Which also meant that I knew a lot of editors and writers from AP vs. Chicago. By the time I launched, there was a ready audience of editors that was actually perfect for Conscious Style Guide, for obvious reasons — because of their professions, they are tasked with being conscious about word choice, about framing, about the topics that they choose [to write about]. From the editor space, it started to expand to academia and law and health and nonprofits. So it [the guide] really has crossover into many fields that value the option of conscious language because they deal with people, they work with people, their customers are people.
You cannot avoid the necessity of wanting to choose language that is effective and skillful for your field. You don’t want to accidentally turn people off, because you’re using a word that’s outdated or exclusive. Some people choose to use language that is exclusive or outdated. But most of us working with people day in and day out, we realized that that’s actually really harmful. And to open up the context, and to broaden our audience, it really serves us to use words that do the least harm possible.
I’ve been consulted by AP Stylebook editors. Also, I am currently an advisor on the board for Chicago Manual style. I’ve also been consulted by other editors associations, like the Editorial Freelancers Association and ACES: The Society for Editing.
[I think] it also came at a good time, when many people in society, maybe even for their own personal development, were seeking ways to be kind and ways to be compassionate through language, and they wanted to avoid things that were obviously harmful. I haven’t checked for a couple of years, but last time I checked, over a thousand websites linked to consciousstyleguide.com.
Pivoting a little bit: At The Objective, we spend a lot of time interrogating the idea of objectivity. How would you describe the way language and “objectivity” work together?
So, in my work in conscious language, it’s important to me to recognize bias. For example, I think that’s something conscious language can bring to the fore, where it helps you interrogate yourself and your worldview. And it asks, “Why are you using this word, or this sentence, or this story, instead of another?”
If you’re asking about complete objectivity, such as trying to present a balanced story, then I don’t think journalism ever was created to be absolutely unbiased. Rather, it’s about committing to do the research and to present the story the best you can. We can’t ever, we cannot ever get rid of our biases. So it’s not possible to write a completely unbiased story.
(Writer’s note: Yin shared this guide for those interested in reading more about journalism beyond “objectivity.”)
After 2020, more editors and newsrooms started to grapple more openly with diversity, bias, and “objectivity.” How have you seen copyediting, media and general interest in conscious language change since then?
We’re all experiencing a time when we’re seeing journalism really make progress with conscious language. For example, when people started talking about the phrase “committed suicide,” very quickly, it seemed to me [that] journalists were already moving away from that and instead saying “died by suicide.”… I saw journalism get away from that pretty quickly. But the other thing that I’m seeing a lot of is tremendous pushback … for example, the term “pregnant person” is getting a tremendous amount of pushback, because people are saying, “by not expressly mentioning women, you are erasing women, and you’re excluding women.”
From my conscious language viewpoint, there are ways to mention women and be inclusive of other pregnant people. So when they make it into a “this or that” issue, that’s when I feel like more work can be done in that area to bring more attention to the fact that these inclusive terms are there as an option for us to use. Nobody is banning these words. This is actually a falsehood that is being pushed by people who are, I guess, anti-inclusive language. Because if you go to the source, if you go to the style guidelines, or whatever press release was issued that caused a commotion, nowhere in there will you see that it’s banned. You’ll most likely see it being phrased as “Consider this word” or “Here’s a way to include non-binary people.” So be really alert of those falsely phrased articles that are designed to create division.
And a lot of times, the word that is being used is, frankly, inaccurate. Accurate terminology is a conscious language issue when inaccuracy causes harm to a historically marginalized group. Like when media outlets use the impossible phrase “underage women” instead of the word “girls” to ascribe culpability to the victims. Or when they use the biased term “gay marriage” instead of “same-sex marriage,” which doesn’t assume the orientation of the partners.
Conscious language deals with preserving shades of meaning. For example, not using a word for a health condition or a mental illness that diminishes the experiences of people who have that condition, like calling your editor who is really precise “OCD.” That’s a conscious language issue. In my book that I’m currently writing, I go into a lot of these topics because even though I’ve been running Conscious Style Guide for 7, 8 years, you don’t really have my philosophy behind conscious language and conscious style.
What do you think is the importance of language as a tool for equity?
Part of the issue is that when people don’t agree with the conscious language or alternatives to language that’s been harmful, when they disagree with what’s being offered, sometimes it’s a matter of providing enough context. So that it is not a concept that is so far out of reach for them.
Between a stranger’s worldview and my worldview, there may be several steps in between. So it’s easier when you’re talking to one person to modulate your language, to modulate your approach. It’s harder when the audience is larger, when you’re talking to unknown amounts of people with your article, or on social media. It becomes extremely difficult to be skillful with your message. And when people push back against something, it’s often because there’s too much distance between how they think and how I think.
Part of conscious language, which I go through [in] my book much more eloquently, is being able to present things in a way that is relevant to people, and make sense in their language. You need to figure out what the pain points actually are of a community, whose minds you are trying to change, and tailor it for them instead of using words that are opposed to their choices, or misunderstanding their choices. For example, “anti-vaxxer” also does not allow the spectrum of nuance to exist, because, for example, many Black Americans are rightfully concerned about vaccines because of the history of experimentation. You cannot lump everybody under one term. It does everybody a disservice.
What do you think is the importance of making all of these resources free and ensuring they’re kept that way?
When I was in a position of being able to offer my insights and my experience for free, because I had just left a job where I was an advertising executive, and I was in advertising for 17 years. I was in a good place to say, I want to give back. Because of the way I grew up — we grew up in poverty, we didn’t have very much — money does not have that kind of hold on me.
When it came to writing my book, I did have a discussion with my agent about, I would like this book to be accessible. And in the middle of our conversation, I realized, this is my time to say, “First of all, I deserve the attention. I should not be afraid to ask people to compensate me for sharing, you know, decades and decades of knowledge.”
For me, it [choosing to sell the book] was also moving into the self that I want to be. If I were to mentor someone, would I tell them, “Oh, give everything for free?” No, I wouldn’t, I would say “You are valuable. Your work is valuable. Do not give everything for free. Always negotiate.” This is what I would tell other people. So why do I change the rules for myself?
But there are a lot of things I do because I believe in creating a culture of generosity. If I don’t need to make it a money making venture, then I won’t. I mean, the reason why I make any blog or website is because I wish that it were there. I wished there was a conscious style guide. There wasn’t, so I had to make it. I wished there was an editors of color group. There wasn’t, so I had to make it. A lot of it was reluctantly stepping up and saying, “Well, I guess I’m the right person to do this.”
This conversation was edited by Holly Rosewood.
Correction (Feb. 6, 1:00 p.m.): Mistranscribed language in the first and second questions has been updated to accurately reflect the content in the interview.
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