Journalists and media professionals have a moral and legal responsibility to get it right

Media Guidelines

Media professionals working in print, broadcast, online and digital industries have a duty to ensure that their reporting and productions are fair and balanced. That responsibility is enshrined under various codes, including the IPSO Editors’ Code, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, and the NUJ Code of Conduct.

Changing Faces’ Media Guidelines have been produced to assist professionals in fulfilling this and ensuring that their representations of disfigurement are factual and non-prejudicial.

Changing Faces

We began our work in 1992 to help people who have a disfigurement find a way to live the lives they want. Our ambition is to create an enlightened society, which fully accepts and values people who have a disfigurement. We provide support to individuals and families, run the national Skin Camouflage Service, deliver training to health, social care and education professionals, and we campaign and advocate for face equality in every area of society.

Our work with media professionals focuses on ensuring that news and documentary reporting and titling is accurate and non-discriminatory, and that fictional programming does not play to prejudice and stereotyping.

The word ‘disfigurement’

[dis-fig-yer-muh nt; British dis-fig-er-muh nt]

1. an act or instance of disfiguring
2. a disfigured condition
3. something that disfigures, as a scar

Changing Faces uses the word ‘disfigurement’ as it is a succinct general term, widely understood by the general public and enshrined in law in the Equality Act 2010, which gives legal protection to people with ‘severe disfigurements’.

It’s important to note that not everyone likes the word ‘disfigurement’, preferring instead words like ‘visible difference’ or ‘unusual appearance’. Where possible, we encourage the cause of the disfigurement to be explained (i.e. ‘Jane has a cleft lip’; ‘Gary sustained burns in a house fire’) because this is an informative way of describing the person’s condition.

Responsible, factual reporting

There is a fine line between sensitive, intelligent reporting and sensationalising the issue and/or making negative value judgments about people based on their appearance.

Being responsible in your reporting doesn’t mean that it has to be ‘dumbed down’ or boring. It just means making sure you are fully informed about the causes and effects of conditions, marks and scars that can affect someone’s appearance, and using appropriate, accurate language in describing it to avoid stereotypical representations that cause harm.

You should inform in a balanced, accurate and sensitive way, remembering that:

  • More than a million people in the UK have a significant disfigurement to their face or body, and from a wide range of causes. Some people are affected from birth such as by cranio-facial syndromes, Neurofibromatosis, birthmarks and cleft lip and palates. Others acquire a disfigurement during their life such from eczema, acne, psoriasis, vitiligo, Bell’s Palsy or from scars and asymmetry from accidents, burns, violence and self-harming, and from cancer treatment or surgery
  • What the media says about people with disfigurements and how it portrays them can affect how they are treated – and it can also affect how they think about themselves
  • Disfigurement is included as a disability in the UK’s Equality Act 2010 and the requirement to avoid discrimination applies to those with disfigurements.

Words and phrases

People with disfigurements can face discrimination at school, work and other areas of their lives. Media portrayal has a significant impact on public opinion, and words frame the way we think about a subject.

The language around disfigurement is often negative. Consider the two sentences:

Amin was horribly disfigured in a motorbike accident

Amin’s face was severely injured in a motorbike accident

In the first sentence, Amin’s disfigurement is judged to be ‘horrible’. The second sentence is factual and non-judgemental, and is therefore preferable. To describe any aspect of a person’s appearance as ‘horrible’ is offensive, and yet media professionals often use words like ‘horrible’ or ‘grotesque’ when describing disfigurement.

Here are some do’s and don’ts of language…

Don’t use ‘deformity’, ‘abnormality’ or ‘defect’ but do use ‘disfigurement’, because disfigurement is more objective, less derogatory, with fewer negative connotations.

Don’t use ‘disfigured people’ or ‘scarred people’ but do use ‘a person with a disfigurement’, or ‘people who have scars’, because putting the person first is more respectful than labelling them by their disfigurement.

Don’t use ‘victim of…’, ‘suffering from…’ or ‘suffers from…’ but do use ‘survivor’ (i.e. ‘burns survivor’), or a phrase like ‘he has severe eczema’ or ‘she has Bell’s palsy’, because these words are more positive and/or objective and factual.

Don’t use ‘terribly scarred’, ‘horribly disfigured’, ‘badly burned’, ‘monstrous’, ‘grotesque’, or ‘ugliest … in the world’ but do use ‘she was scarred’, ‘he was left with a disfigurement’, or ‘severely burned’ because adverbs like ‘terribly’ and ‘horribly’ make value judgements, whereas the later examples are factual.

Don’t use phrases such as ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts’ when referring to someone’s appearance but do say ‘Sammy has a strawberry birthmark on her left cheek, bright blue eyes and a great smile’, because the first statement suggests the outer appearance is unacceptable. Having a disfigurement does not mean that a person cannot be attractive.

Titles and headlines

Otherwise excellent reporting and programming can sometimes be spoiled by an insensitive or sensationalist title or headline that encourages voyeurism and objectifies the subject. The language used in such titles and headlines is often used in the school playground and in the street to taunt, tease and bully people with disfigurements.

These are some recent examples:

  • ’World’s worst disfigurement: woman born with no face hopes for surgery’ Daily Express (later amended following complaint from Changing Faces)
  • ‘The Ugly Face of Disability Hate Crime’ BBC Three / Betty Television
  • ‘Elephant man with 25kg tumour has life-saving surgery’ Huffington Post (later amended following complaint from Changing Faces)

Media professionals respect boundaries related to offensive language on issues such as race, gender, sexuality, age and disability but this isn’t always the case with disfigurement. For many people – both people with and without disfigurements – it is unacceptable to justify such offensive titles on the basis of attracting more viewers when such an approach could not be justified in relation to other diversity or equality issues.

Changing Faces can help

Our PR & Communications team is available to assist media professionals in getting it right and to challenge when they get it wrong. Click here for contact details.