Something To Think About: Was Michael Brown A ‘Teenager?’ Yes, But …

Webster’s New World College Dictionary is clear: “teenager … a person in his or her teens.”

But check out this headline: “AP Decides Not to Refer to Brown, 18, as ‘Teenager.’ ” (Richard Prince’s Journal-isms)

“Many outlets continue to refer to [Michael Brown] as a teen or teenager. Now that we know his age, let’s be specific without using a term that can be left up to interpretation.” (AP Managing Editor Lou Ferrara)

Basically, the wire service says that once you’ve reached 18, you’re an adult and that to most people a “teenager” implies someone younger than 18.

We’ve used the words “teen” and “teenager” often when referring to Brown.

Should we?

After conversations with a dozen or so editors on various parts of the 3rd floor, it’s clear there are two basic views. There’s a slight majority in favor of No. 2:

1. By definition, Brown was a teenager. So the word applies. He was 18 at the time of his death and it’s just a fact that he was a teen. We can use the words “teen” and “teenager.”

2. But words come with connotations. For many listeners and readers, a “teen” is a youngster or a kid. We could be influencing the way they view the story by introducing that word. We should avoid it.

By now, you may be asking: “What’s the alternative?”

The most common suggestion is “young man.” That also comes with connotations — though they seem to be more appropriate ones in this case. Brown was old enough to vote. He had graduated from high school. He could have gone into the military. As AP might say, he had entered adulthood.

Would we refer to an 18-year-old soldier killed in Afghanistan as a “teen” or “teenager?” Probably not unless we were doing a profile and it felt right to say he was “still in his teens.” But I suspect we’d be more likely to use the phrase “young man.”

The best guidance in this case and others like it that may come along seems to (as it has in other situations) come back to avoiding labels.

So, perhaps we should say and write that Brown was “the 18-year-old shot and killed by a police officer.” Or, that protests continued over the “shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.”

Are we banning the words “teen” and “teenager” for 18- and 19-year-olds? No.

Might we decide sometime that a 17-year-old should be described as a “young woman” or “young man?” Yes.

But is it best to avoid labels and to consider them carefully before using them? Yes.

(H/T to Hansi Lo Wang.)

(Memmos; Aug. 21, 2014)

August 21, 2014

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