Full marks for editorial transparency and interactivity for the BBC, which this morning used the final item on the *Today *programme (RealAudio) to discuss, in a serious manner, an editorial policy issue being discussed by listeners on the programme’s online messageboard.

An apparent serial killer is on the loose in Ipswich, where five women have been found dead. What they all had in common was that they worked in the sex industry — they were prostitutes. The English Collective of Prostitutes has complained that media accounts of the story have described the victims by their profession rather than as “young women”.

Another comment was read out on the air:

Could you please change the language used to describe these ladies. They are people not prostitutes. Just like you and me they have a home life as well as a work life. You owe it to their families and friends to make this clear.

They have suffered an appalling death, lets not glorify the murderer by pretending that his crime is some how lessened by the profession of the victims.

Perhaps you could say “The girl, who worked as a prostitute” instead of “The prostitute”

The actual item was a standard soundbite sparring match between two opposed experts — Teela Sanders, lecturer in the sociology of crime for the prosecution and blogging hackademic Roy Greenslade for the defense.

Sanders presented a fairly wishy-washy line about the semantics of the word “prostitites”, which she argued “objectifies women” and “desensitises the public against violence against women”. Worse, the term implies a stereotypical image of women who sell sex for a living as vulnerable and are not afforded the same protection as other women. The “historically loaded phrase” conjures “images of disease and decay” and may lead people with misogynists to target such women.

*(On later reflection) This is probably a valid point that could be argued persuasively in lengthy academic paper, but it didn’t come across very well in the few seconds Sanders had on air. *

She suggested “women involved in the sex industry” or “sex workers” as a more suitable alternative.

Greenslade was more convincing, although he did himself no favours by wading into another minefield by referring to the victims as “girls”.

He said: “The link between all these murders was that these girls were working as prostitutes, and we would be in a dereliction of duty if we didn’t report the truth. It is for the good of general society that we tell the truth and it is specifically right that we tell the truth to the women walking the streets of Ipswitch that they have been targeted because they were prostitutes.”

“Sex worker”, he argued, is too generic because it could refer to pimps or lapdancers as well. The fact is that they were working as prostitutes and the fact that they been described in that way in no way demeans them, he argued. Moreover Sanders’ preferred “convoluted phrase” would not alter the views people have of women in that line of work.

Neither expert view was completely convincing, though. Some of the messageboard commenters’ views seemed to get at the essential issue much better than the competing academics:

… I wish that the BBC headlines would say ‘The murdered body of a young woman has been found . . . . ‘ NOT ‘The murdered body of a prostitute’ …

… dehumanising the victims by referring to the first by their occupation and only latterly as women is unworthy of the BBC.

Neither Sanders nor Greenslade had it quite right: The problem isn’t the word “prostitute” itself, but the way it has been used by some journalistic accounts as the sole noun on the first reference to the victims.

Update: The BBC Editors blog has more, as does Guardian’s MediaTalk podcast — where Emily Bell gets it right.