When Tulsa police arrested two men Sunday in connection with a shooting spree that targeted African-Americans, much of the media drew attention to a racist Facebook post apparently written by one of the suspects. But CNN’s unusually explicit on-air description of the post raised eyebrows and renewed a debate about how journalists report on hateful speech.
The post was written by murder suspect Jake England, who along with his roommate confessed to an apparently random series of shootings that left three people dead and two wounded. On Facebook, England lamented the violent death of his own father two years ago and referred to his father’s killer with a vulgar adjective and a racial slur.
“There was a Facebook posting made just the other day,” CNN correspondent Susan Candiotti said Sunday, as she reported live from Tulsa. “Please excuse the language; it’s very sensitive: Shot by a f****** n*****.” (Candiotti spoke the full words; unedited video is available here.)
Candiotti’s report marked the second time in three weeks that a CNN reporter quoted the racial epithet during news coverage. The previous occasion came March 21, when correspondent Drew Griffin repeated comments allegedly made by the defendant in a Mississippi hate crime case. Candiotti’s story also aired just a day after CNN broadcast a discussion about the appropriateness of journalists repeating the word. Host Don Lemon supported its on-air use and complained that euphemisms like “the N-word” sanitize its vulgarity.
CNN’s usage of the word isn’t an especially new trend. Griffin quoted it in at least two previous reports on the Mississippi case, and it also was heard in a story about the controversy over Gov. Rick Perry’s hunting camp and a historical retrospective about Martin Luther King.
Still, the network’s most recent use attracted widespread notice.
“CNN has been shocking viewers by saying the full ‘N-word’ on recent reports,” said co-host Whoopi Goldberg on ABC’s “The View” this week, kicking off a conversation among the show’s panelists about the practice.
“CNN … has seemingly embarked on a new plan to gain viewers’ attention by its consistent use of the N-word on the air,” wrote Don Irvine on Accuracy in Media – one of several conservative websites that suggested CNN’s use of the word is part of what they consider to be the network’s liberal agenda.
F’s and N’s: Most media organizations euphemized
Neither Candiotti nor CNN’s public relations department responded to my questions about the network’s policy on racist language. But at least in the case of Candiotti’s report, CNN’s on-air reaction suggested her use of the slur likely was ad-libbed and not the result of a coordinated newsroom plan.
Immediately after the report, anchor Fredricka Whitfield apologized “for such profanities being used on our air.” Candiotti followed with her own apology later. Though the network didn’t specify whether it was expressing regret for the noun, the adjective, or both, a full-screen graphic that accompanied Candiotti’s original report obscured both words. In Candiotti’s later reports, she said only that the Facebook post contained “an expletive and the N-word.”
“In the case of Ms. Candiotti, I think she was just reading (the Facebook post), instead of actually pausing to think,” speculated Gregory Lee, Jr. — a senior editor at the Boston Globe who serves as President of the National Association of Black Journalists. “There’s an adrenalin rush when you’re doing a live shot, and you might not be thinking about what the standards are.”
Lee is among those who feel journalists should refrain from printing or broadcasting the full racial epithet. Most of the mainstream media exercised such restraint in reporting England’s Facebook post. The New York Times, NBC News, and the Associated Press referred to a “racial slur.” ABC News said England had written “the N word,” while the Tulsa World printed the phrase as “f—— n—–.”
“I don’t think you needed the extra dramatization of adding the N-word in your broadcast,” Lee said in a phone interview. “Just the alleged crime that he’s been accused of is enough for somebody to understand the hate in that person.”
Even some observers who support journalists’ use of the word in some situations questioned the need to quote England’s vulgar phrase. NPR Vice President for Diversity Keith Woods — a former Poynter Dean of Faculty — said he could make a case that “hearing those two words together is a different truth than bleeping it out.” But Woods isn’t sure it was necessary when reporting the Tulsa arrests. (NPR referred to the phrase either as “a racial slur” or “F-ing N.”)
“It’s good for us to think in terms of restraint early in stories like this,” Woods said. “They’re two men who have confessed to the crime who are in jail. Telling people (the exact language of Facebook post) won’t help them understand the story any better.”
Meanwhile, conservative media commentators and bloggers pounced upon CNN’s use of the slur, in some cases spinning out theories that portrayed Candiotti’s report as part of a broader political agenda. One poster on the website FreeRepublic.com opined that Candiotti was “on orders” to use the offensive language “for the purpose of offending blacks” and motivating them to vote for President Obama in November.
Writer Noel Sheppard of the conservative website Newsbusters stopped short of accusing CNN of “something concocted,” but expressed concern that the network may be “ginning up a race war.”
“Why are we discussing this in an election year while racial tensions are about to explode as a result of the Trayvon Martin shooting?” Sheppard said in a phone interview. “It seems like a weird time to be talking about it.”
Standards should be carefully considered, equally applied
While it’s far-fetched to believe CNN is intentionally trying to rile up racial tension, the network opened itself up to criticism with its seemingly offhand use of an offensive slur and its subsequent vague apologies. It also unintentionally demonstrated the need for all news organizations to establish clear guidelines for reporting stories that involve hateful speech:
• Most important, any such story merits a thoughtful conversation among newsroom personnel BEFORE the words are printed or broadcast. Even in a breaking news situation – and even if the words already are publicly available on Facebook or elsewhere – this is one of those cases where it’s more important to be deliberate than fast.
Among the difficult questions journalists should consider are whether quoting the exact words enhances the audience’s understanding of the story, whether the language has potential to harm those involved in the story or the audience at large, and whether using euphemistic forms of the words would overly “sanitize” the story or make it less truthful.
“That has to happen off deadline, off air, away from the computer,” Woods said. “And I frankly don’t think there’s nearly enough of that.”
Though it seems obvious, news organizations also must assure that once a decision is made, everybody who’s involved in reporting and producing the story knows about it.
“We’re so busy as editors that we forget we need to remind our reporters in the field of our standards,” Lee said.
• The audience – especially on television and radio – should be adequately warned of offensive language before it’s broadcast. Candiotti told viewers she was about to relay “sensitive language,” but then said the vulgar phrase less than five seconds later. That’s not enough time for viewers to mute the volume or change the channel if they didn’t want to hear it. Instead, a more distinct advisory should precede offensive language by 15 to 30 seconds, perhaps accompanied by an on-screen warning.
• Finally, a news organization’s policies on vulgar or hateful speech should be consistent, transparent, and justifiable. Lee – the NABJ President – notes that some news organizations treat racial slurs about African-Americans differently from hateful terms about other groups. And it’s not unusual for an organization’s treatment of a particular word to change from story to story or even from day to day.
The lack of a clear policy – and a reluctance to discuss the policy publicly – can create confusion inside and outside the newsroom and make it easier for critics to ascribe a political agenda to the news organization’s practices.
“It’s when we use that kind of language recklessly and without the ability to justify it that we open ourselves up to criticisms of ulterior motives,“ Woods said. “Our job is not to parrot what people say or to try to beat other people to saying it. Our job to figure out when it’s absolutely imperative to the truth.”