Words are at the center of your work as a journalist, and precision of language can be the difference between successful communication and trouble. When the issue is race, ethnicity or any other significant difference, the peril — and the need for thought and precision — couldn’t be more acute. We’ll look at language issues using three notions:
ONE Meanings will change depending upon speaker, listener and context
That is true whether you’re talking about hot-button differences or innocuous semantics. Wherever there are meaningful differences, particularly tied to a history of oppression, discrimination or some other form of discord, expect greater suspicion, ignorance and offense. A man (speaker) asking a female colleague (listener) to get a cup of coffee during a meeting (context) does so at the risk of coming across as chauvinistic.
The more individuals know about another’s history — their thoughts and actions — the better able they are to judge meaning when multiple meanings are possible. Conversely, the less we know, the quicker we are to assume the worst.
TWO The list of words, phrases or actions that offend across difference is extensive
Invariably, the list will be longer than you know, and the level of offense will be more acute for some than for others. The important thing to recognize is that the offense is not new. What is new is the number of people willing to say so and the range of ways they can now communicate their feelings.
For the Romanian Gypsies in the U.S., for example, the common use of “gyp” as a synonym for “swindle” has always been an insult, though many Americans grew up ignorant of the word’s origins.
THREE When words explode, remember: information first, judgment last
Reporting on word controversies involving race and ethnicity seems to follow a path of predictable questions: Did he admit saying it? Is he a racist? Did he apologize? Those are not the most useful questions. It is practically impossible, for example, to prove that someone is not a racist. Your audience is trying to figure out what to do next. They need more context, more insight, more understanding.
Better that you ask: What did she mean? Does she understand the problem? Who is she? Journalists should climb into the heads of the speakers just as they comb their backgrounds. They must remember that few one-time proclamations are the sum total of a person, for better or for worse.
Reporting the Story
(After the eruption)
If people are to take an action after the eruption, they’ll need information to make a good decision. Here are four questions that advance knowledge and understanding.
1. What did they say? Don’t get seduced by the sexy sound byte and leave out important facts. Be precise and avoid paraphrasing. That enhances fairness and sharpens accuracy.
2. Why does it matter? If someone has uttered a racial or ethnic insult, remember that not everyone knows the history or context of the words and, therefore, might not understand why anyone would be upset. That context also helps your audience put the remarks in perspective and judge for themselves the severity (or lack thereof) of the words.
3. What did they mean? Beware assumptions here. It might not mean what you think. Even if the words rank among the most profane or bigoted terms in the language, ask the neutral question: “What do you mean?” Another question that gets to the heart of the story: “Do you know why those words would anger some people?” Another: “What would you most want people to know about you right now?”
4. Who are your sources? Remember that opinions vary among and between people. If the insult is aimed at Arabs, don’t just seek reaction from Arabs. Ask Latinos, Native Americans, white people, etc. That includes and expands perspective.
Here are a few websites that list slurs and insults across race and ethnicity. The online lists tend to borrow from one another, so no single list can be considered the “authority.” Use these as a way to start a conversation: