Stylebook Survey: Newsroom Policy on 'Illegitimate Children' : NPR Public Editor The New York Times, PBS and The Washington Post share their policies on referring to unmarried parents' children. What should NPR's policy look like?
NPR logo Stylebook Survey: Newsroom Policy on 'Illegitimate Children'

Stylebook Survey: Newsroom Policy on 'Illegitimate Children'

Readers and other news media have responded to our first post with guidance on how NPR and all the news media should refer to the children of unmarried parents in this age of changing family structures and celebrity "scandals".

I am leaning towards recommending to NPR an explicit policy like the Times and the Post. What do you think?

I got this stylebook entry from The New York Times:

illegitimate. Do not refer to a child of unmarried parents as illegitimate, and avoid the stodgy born out of wedlock. If the parents' marital status is pertinent and the pertinence is clear to the reader, simply report that the parents are not married or that the child is the son or daughter of a single mother or father.

The Washington Post has a similar stylebook entry:

illegitimate. This word should not be used in referring to a person whose parents were not married. If it is necessary to raise the matter at all, use an expression such as whose mother was not married, whose parents were not married or was born to an unmarried teenager.

Like NPR, PBS does not have a policy, but shares a similar ethos. Linda Winslow, executive producer of PBS' NewsHour, wrote:

We don't have a 'policy' per se. I can't remember ever seeing a NewsHour script with that word in it, however. It sounds so judgmental in today's world. If the question did come up over here, I'd suggest finding another way to make that point – if, in fact, the point was germane to the story. As in 'laws denying citizenship to the children of unwed immigrant mothers' or some such phrase.

Reader Stacey Elliott wrote, "I simply avoid such descriptions when not necessary. When it is necessary, I simply say 'child/children from a previous relationship/relationships,' or something similar."

Having a shared such sentiment would be good, but it seems to me a written policy would be better.