By Nishat Kurwa
That's our question for reporters who are referring to Jared Lee Loughner as the "22-year-old college dropout" who shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
It's been reported that Loughner dropped out of Pima Community College after being suspended. Of course, that's amid plenty of other tidbits trickling out about his purported identity -- as mentally unstable, or a conspiracy theorist -- that would be just as easy to apply as labels. But as producers in our newsroom pointed out, the "22-year-old college dropout" seems to be reporters' preferred combo in first references to the alleged shooter's background. As such, the term has been divorced of the ennobling power it has when it's used to describe beloved college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Kanye West, who are celebrated for unlocking their dreams by dispensing with formal education.
Most notably, the description has been used by several New York Times writers, including Marc Lacey, who told us by email that he "was looking for a shorthand way of describing (Loughner) and alluding to his troubles." Of course, the Times was only one of many outlets that used the term in the first or second graf of their Loughner stories, from Reuters to the Arizona Wildcat to AOL News to Sky News, and on and on.
Roy Peter Clark is a Senior Scholar at the Poynter Institute who wrote a blog post about the usage of terms like "pot-smoking loner" and "assassin" to describe Loughner. "There's a kind of a bad old tradition in journalism of fusing these shorthand descriptions in order to somehow capture someone's history or personality or social class in a capsule," Clark said. "This is very true especially of women. I'm thinking of the 1950s where women who were involved in any kind of crimes would be described, if they were missing, as 'a waitress' or 'a cheerleader' or 'a coed'. Or if they had more social status,
they were a 'debutante' or 'a nurse.' "
Clark said he's been considering the problems and limits of group identity, especially when the context is negative and the group in question doesn't necessarily have an organized constituency to refute marginalizing labels. "I think in this case," Clark said, "to call someone a dropout is to probably consider one piece of a sort of portrait of a seriously dysfunctional young man."
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