I was in high school when a fellow classmate threw a tantrum because he was referred to as an African-American in the local paper. At first glance, it would not have appeared obvious why Marsden was so upset. He had a dark complexion with dark brown eyes, full lips and coarse black hair worn close to his scalp. So why was he so upset by the term that was adopted as the politically correct way to refer to a person of color living in America? Marsden was the first generation in his family born in America instead of Jamaica. He was Jamaican-American and very proud of his heritage. I’m sure the slight was unintentional, but the effect was everlasting.
As journalists, we strive for accuracy in our storytelling. It strengthens our credibility. The SPJ Code of Ethics calls us to be “honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” The Code also says “ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.” While it may be an honest mistake, making assumptions of someone’s nationality or heritage can be offensive, and could cost you credibility and a source. A few simple things to consider can save you, your source and your organization a lot of hassle and embarrassment.
1. HAVE A CONVERSATION IN YOUR NEWSROOM
The first step in any program of change is always awareness. As a collective group, you might not even be aware of the various groups in your area or the possible list of choices. And there are choices. The days of simply white, black or other are long gone. Think back to the 2010 Census form. There were several different ethnic identity choices listed, and still some groups were left out. A group discussion may also help you identify people in your community who have a story to tell that hasn’t yet been told. Heritage societies and cultural centers are great resources to broaden your scope. The discussion in your newsroom will not only raise the awareness of ethnic sensitivity, but it could also lead to a brainstorm of ideas for that next award-winning piece.
2. ASK YOUR SOURCES HOW THEY WOULD LIKE TO BE REFERENCED
If the ethnic identity is important to the story, then it is certainly important enough to ask the question. The question of Latino vs. Hispanic created many gray hairs and days of confusion for census form writers and takers. In some cases, the difference is territorial. In other instances, it’s a matter of preference. The definition of each varies depending upon the source and the region of the country. By asking the question directly from the source, there is no chance on taking a gamble and getting it wrong. There’s no reason to be afraid of asking the question. Your desire to be honest and accurate will be respected.
3. THERE IS NO “ALL-KNOWING” REFERENCE SOURCE
The Associated Press Stylebook is a great tool, but it isn’t the Bible, Torah, Quran or any other religious testimonial on the absolute right and wrong, especially on this topic. The best advice I’ve found is in the Yahoo Style Guide, which says, “Be exact. Use exact words and terms favored by the group.” Native Americans are still called “Indians,” (“American Indian” in AP style) dubbed by Christopher Columbus before he realized he hadn’t reached his intended destination. Just because the unknown majority finds it acceptable doesn’t make it right. The person to whom you are referring becomes the only group that really matters. By being exact and accurate, no one can take offense to Sioux, Miami or Cherokee.
Ethnic terminology is constantly changing. Once upon a time my grandmother was a colored woman. Then my dad was a black man. Now I am an African-American. Each term in its time was acceptable to each of us. By taking the time to discover what is preferred and acceptable in our coverage, the stories we strive to tell adhere to the principles of ethics we all hold dear.
Amber Stearns is a reporter/anchor for WIBC Radio in Indianapolis. She is a member of the SPJ Diversity Committee and was a 2010 Diversity Leadership Fellow. See more on the DLF program.