Back in the very early days of Newswriting.com I posted a Writing Tools article aimed at helping journalists eliminate racism from their copy. I’m reproducing it here (with a few enhancements) because in light of everything that’s been happening lately, I believe the lessons laid out in that piece can be broadly applied to all of us in the way we speak, the words we choose, the actions we take and how we interact with people who may not look like us. Every human being deserves equal respect regardless of background or ethnicity. Yet many of us have difficulty processing the pain and perspectives of others, simply because we don’t share a common history. We need to listen better, care more and talk face-to-face instead of shouting and accusing. I hope this article helps some folks make some progress in that direction.
A long time ago I was assigned to write a crime story that looked pretty much like any other. There were a few details about the incident, and a brief police description of the suspect: Male Black, 25-30 years old, 5’10”, 175 lbs., dark shirt, dark pants. I wrote the story, included the description, and thought nothing more about it (Note: I’m far from the only one who routinely did that. See the sample below:)
A day or two later, at the morning meeting, the news director read an irate letter from a viewer complaining that we had perpetuated negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Such a vague description of a suspect, the writer complained, adds nothing to the story, because it could apply to millions of people. All it does is contribute to the harmful perception linking blacks to criminal behavior.
The letter was signed, Ed Bradley.
At first I was stunned. Had I done something wrong? Me? Impossible! All I did was repeat, verbatim, what the police had told us! Just the facts! Who was even thinking about racism, stereotypes, or anything else? Then I got defensive. Suppose the guy had been white? Wouldn’t I have written the story exactly the same way, just changing “Male Black” to “Male Caucasian?” And doesn’t that prove I’m even-handed? (Note: Again, see a typical sample below:)
I’ve had many years to think about this, and I now believe Mr. Bradley was right.
This is not about overt racism, but a more subtle form. As a writer, you may think a particular reference or categorization is completely innocent and innocuous, and you may have the best of intentions when you use it. It doesn’t really matter. If someone else is offended by it, that’s valid, and it needs to be acknowledged. It’s arrogant to assume something’s OK just because it doesn’t grate your personal sensitivities. Racism is in the ear of the beholder. Every person’s feelings are unique, and every bit as important as your own.
In this case, saying I would have treated the story the same way with a white suspect is no defense. Because it wouldn’t be the same story. Rightly or wrongly, the public does not condemn all whites when a story airs about a white criminal. Tragically, the same cannot be said about black suspects, which means we have to be extra careful. We’re supposed to tell folks what’s going on, not insult them. Why reinforce a negative stereotype about an entire community if it can be easily avoided?
I no longer routinely put generic police suspect descriptions in my stories. But I have not discarded them completely, nor have I eliminated skin color as a means of description. If, for example, we know that the suspect has a scar, a limp, unusual clothing, or other unique characteristics which significantly narrow the search parameters, I will say so, and in the context of narrowing that search even further, I will also include the person’s race if I know it. Once there’s a real chance of identifying the suspect, every available bit of information, including race, becomes necessary. Color, like it or not, is a distinguishing characteristic. Just not by itself.
Don’t get defensive, as I did, when your error is pointed out. Someone just gave you a gift that will make you a better writer, and a better person. Accept it, and learn from it. Also try to remember that this is an ongoing, evolving process. Acceptable words from five years ago may no longer be appropriate. Remember, yours is not the final say. Once the complaint is out there, it’s out there, and we have to be mindful of it.
It helps when managers steer writers back to the proper path. A few years ago, for a story on personal finance, I interviewed three money experts. All three were well-known, with broad reputations. And all three were white. My news director asked only one question: “Couldn’t you get a person of color?” I had been concentrating strictly on the story. My boss had to consider the story, and the audience. He knew that some of his viewers might not like being told where to put their money by folks who didn’t look like them or have anything in common with them. Appearances count.
Even seemingly extreme sensitivities can have legitimate origins. A reporter friend of mine was dressed down by one of her managers for wearing running shoes while interviewing Rev. Jesse Jackson. The manager claimed the reporter “had not shown Minister Jackson the proper respect.”
The fact that the reporter wore running shoes every day, on every story, during every interview, was irrelevant. The manager was offended. I thought this was outrageous and completely impossible to predict, until a friend outside the news business said of the reporter, “Well, she was doing her ‘Little Miss White Girl’ thing.” Apparently there is a bona fide sore spot there, but I’d never heard of it, and I think 999 out of 1,000 journalists would have never seen it coming.
As writers we have to face the fact that we’ll never achieve a 100% success rate here. Sooner or later, we will offend, simply because our audience is multi-ethnic and our knowledge is imperfect. But we can minimize those embarrassing incidents, with a few guidelines:
BE A PERSON OF GOODWILL. Skepticism in the news business is healthy. Cynicism is not. People of goodwill speak reasonably with each other, taking each other’s feelings into account, and if a mishap occurs, it’s usually accidental and easily corrected. Assuming the worst about people guarantees trouble.
DON’T KEEP THINGS TO YOURSELF. If a phrase, term or categorization just doesn’t feel right, but you’re not exactly sure why, read it to a colleague, or several colleagues, and ask, “Does this bother you?”
WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T! Why risk the integrity of a story by including a term that’s not only questionable, but distracting? Why do anything that pulls the viewer away, even for a moment, from the core purpose of the story?
The subject of race is difficult, and potentially hurtful. No one person has all the answers, and no one person does everything right. Misunderstandings can happen, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. So let me apologize right now, if anything I’ve said rubs you the wrong way. No disrespect was intended. The goal was not to dictate or criticize, but to start a conversation. We should keep talking about this.