Around the turn of the century, when I began to study journalism as an aspiring reporter rather than as a dedicated newspaper reader, Keith M. Woods, then dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, published an article, “The Language of Race,” that captured what most newspaper editors I would work with in the aughts regarded as enlightened best practices.
Until recently, he explained, publications overwhelmingly staffed by white people had selectively used racial identifiers “to call attention to the criminal, immoral, or threatening acts of other racial and ethnic groups to demonstrate that the stereotypes about those groups were true.” And people of color appeared so seldom in other coverage that their race would be flagged even when not relevant to compensate for the prejudicial assumption that a subject worthy of coverage was Caucasian.
“Put it all together and you get stereotypes, dangerous misinformation, half-truths,” he lamented. In urging change, he didn’t rely on appeals to justice or moral suasion. He rightly insisted that mere commitment to professional rigor demanded better. “Journalists are chained to habits that defy cornerstone principles of solid journalism,” he wrote, “and that’s the point. Journalists who can’t connect with the myriad moral reasons to reform how they write and report about race and race relations don’t have to look further for their motivation than some of the core values that undergird the profession: Accuracy. Precision. Context. Relevance.”
The illustrative examples aired in thought-provoking articles like his caused me and many of my peers to begin our first journalism jobs having already thought through a lot of the thorny issues we would otherwise have confronted for the first time in deadline situations, if we even noticed the fact that a consequential choice was before us at all.
Consider these sentences: The two suspects were described as black men in their 20s. One was about 5-7, the other between 5-8 and 5-10. “Here is an alternative,” Woods suggested. “If journalists told their audience that the suspect was about 5-foot-8, about 165 pounds, with caramel-brown skin, wavy, dark brown hair about an inch long, thick eyebrows, a narrow nose, thick lips, and a light mustache,” the public could better help catch a bad guy even as the newspaper avoided spreading a description that would put most young black men in town under generalized suspicion.
Of course, “all racial and ethnic groups do share some common physical characteristics,” he acknowledged, but as he correctly observed:
… we don’t see the phrase “Irish-looking man” in the newspaper, though red hair and pale skin are common Irish characteristics. Would a picture come to mind if a TV anchor said, “The suspect appeared to be Italian”? Couldn’t many of us conjure an image if the police said they were looking for a middle-aged man described as “Jewish-looking.” There are good reasons those descriptions never see the light of day. They generalize. They stereotype. And they require that everyone who hears the description has the same idea of what those folks look like. All Irish-Americans don’t look alike. Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?
Racial signifiers remain tricky in countless journalistic situations–– often there is no consensus on the “right” answer. Historically marginalized groups are still sometimes subject to ignorant stereotypes or overly broad generalizations in coverage (as well as outright antagonism on social media and populist websites). And there are occasional lapses when publications err in ways that put political correctness before accuracy.