As journalists, language is the stock and trade. Words have power; they should be used carefully.
One thing many majority or Caucasian journalists may not realize is their language is different from people of color’s. Why? Perhaps because, as Carole L. Lund said in a recent education journal article, white people generally do not think of themselves as racial. People of color frequently think of their color/racial background because they are different from the majority; whites set the rules, guidelines and foundations for society, the standard for everyone else, Lund said.
“It is the invisibility and silence of racism that renders us unable to see it, unable to name it, unable to take action against it,” Lund said. “It is part of our society, culture and individual lives.”
So what is a journalist to do?
To start, reporters, editors and producers need to think a bit more about how people are being presented in news stories. Are the words creating a stereotype? Can the story be re-written to eliminate the stereotypical images? This also means being aware of what those stereotypes are and that they can be deeply offensive to certain groups.
For example, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele made what many Native Americans consider a racial slur during a January interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
Native American Journalists Association president Ronnie Washines immediately called for an apology, but native people are still waiting. Steele has ignored all pleas for an apology. Some natives believe it is a lack of continued coverage in mainstream media that has allowed the incident to slip from Steele’s mind and public view.
While the term “honest injun” may not seem offensive to some, it is to Native Americans. It is the same type of language that becomes racial profiling that is used against any group of color: Arab-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos and others. Although Steele is African-American, his language assumed the same majority language that is a form of stereotypical branding of a group of people as the “other.”
In addition, many journalists need to learn about and understand their own cultural identity. As Americans, this tends to get overlooked in favor of the “melting pot” concept. By understanding their own cultural background, reporters can help prevent stereotypical images of Irish as poor drunks, the English as exceptionally proper, Croatians as violent and the French as snooty.
Reporters also need to get to know the groups they cover better. For instance, Chinese-Americans are not all about the Chinese New Year; Latinos are not all illegal immigrants; Native Americans are not just about pow-wows; and Arab-Americans are not all radical followers of Islam. Yet these groups are often only shown as such, plus one group often represents all people of that racial or cultural background. Reporters need to realize that finding stories about various groups means going beyond the stereotypes. It takes time and patience, but the rewards are much better stories as well as improved trust from sources.
Journalists should learn more about the background of cultural and racial issues in general. Helen Thomas taught all journalists a valuable lesson when she gave her opinion in June about Israelis leaving Palestine. What is the background here? Why is this statement an issue? There is a deep, ancient disagreement here, and the reporter should understand the basics of the disagreement between these two groups. Knowledge of the cultures is paramount to understanding it.
Although Latinos make up the fastest-growing population group in the United States, there is little understanding of the various Latin cultures (Mexican, South American, Cuban, Puerto Rican, etc.), especially in the mainstream media. Many college-town newspapers will do stories about numbers of Latino and Native American students leaving school, but do they take into consideration the cultural demand on young people by their families to return home to work and help out financially? Most white and Asian-American families expect their children to attend post-secondary school; but families come first for some cultures, so going to college is not a cultural norm for some groups.
Telling stories of different cultural and racial groups requires journalists to look at the story in context with meaning. That means taking the time to learn more about who the group is and their history/heritage. Doing so doesn’t just add color; it provides the reporter with a background that will give context, layers and meanings. It will also mean the reporter tells the story fully, which will likely mean an invitation to return and tell more stories.
As the SPJ Code of Ethics states, journalists should tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so. Learning more about eliminating stereotypical language and diving into cultural groups to report on them is a start in that direction.
Rebecca J. “Becky” Tallent is a full-time, tenure track professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho. She is a member of SPJ and the Native American Journalists Association and is adviser to both student groups on campus. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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