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Will News Media, Politicians Stop Using The Label 'Felon'?

On May 29, the Associated Press released the 57th edition of its stylebook, providing language guidance to newsrooms. Among its new recommendations is avoiding the use of “felon” to designate someone convicted on felony charges. The next day, Donald Trump became the first former president to be convicted of a crime when a Manhattan jury found him guilty of 34 felonies for falsifying records to conceal hush-money payments. The stylebook’s advice proved timely last week as President Biden’s son Hunter was convicted on three federal felony gun charges, In both cases, while political partisans brandish the “felon” label (as President Biden quickly did to describe Trump after his verdict), the AP recommends that editors use “person-first language," rather than label someone a criminal, spell out their crime, reports the Wall Street Journal.  

The Wall Street Journal’s own stylebook has, since 2021, recommended that journalists spell out the crime when possible “to avoid using only the shorthand label felon.” Still, many media outlets have continued using the word “felon” in reporti ng on the latest high-profile convictions. Time Magazine ran the headline “How Trump’s Life Will Change Now That He’s a Convicted Felon,” while USA Today offered, “Hunter Biden is Now a Felon—Can He Vote for His Father?”The word “felon” has been laden with negative connotations since it entered English around 1300. It first appeared in the form "feloun" for an evildoer, borrowed from Old French. In religious contexts, it could be applied to Lucifer or to King Herod in tellings of the story of Jesus. The legal sense of the word emerged in England around the same time, with a lawbreaker sometimes called a “king’s felon”—including Robin Hood, in one ballad. English common law soon established “felony” as a class of crime, considered more serious than a “misdemeanor.” Mike Balsamo, an AP editor, said revisiting the use of “felon” is part of a move away from terms that define people based on one event. “Calling someone convicted of a crime a ‘felon’ defines them by a past act,” he said. “It doesn’t account for their full life story.”


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