From a virus that caged much of the world to a growing movement for racial justice in the United States, the demand for accuracy and accountability in journalism has never been greater.
It’s heartening to see newsrooms around the world debating and updating style guide entries related to race and identity. But those conversations are still far from comprehensive.
Unfortunately, a consequence of the lack of diversity in newsrooms is a genuine unfamiliarity and therefore discomfort with word choice related to race and diverse identities. Too often in an attempt at inclusivity, we opt for vague terms. We write around touchy subjects. We avoid precision and eschew context. But imprecise words often sacrifice source dignity. And they send the passive message to readers that they don’t need to understand the nuance of complicated issues.
Take, for example, the word “ethnic.”
“Ethnic tensions flared in Minneapolis again today,” is a real sentence published by a major news outlet in the United States recently. “Ethnic tensions are common in the border regions of Democratic Republic of Congo,” is too.
In the first case, you may be more familiar with the context in which the phrase is used. In the second, you likely are not. In both cases, the subtext of the sentence is clear — this story is about race. It’s complicated. But the details aren’t important for you to understand.
POYNTER TRAINING: Writing About the World in 2020: Dignity and Precision in Language
We all roll our eyes when Aunt Betty says she ate “ethnic” food or shows you the “ethnic” scarf she got on the cruise ship. So why is this any different?
The Global Press Style Guide, a living document created to ensure dignity and precision in international journalism, bars use of the word ethnic.
Of course, ethnic isn’t a bad word. But we don’t use it because there is a more precise option available to the journalist in literally every circumstance. And reader clarity is served by that more precise option.
In this complex moment of consequence, journalists can’t be content to wait for industry leaders to tell us when it’s OK to capitalize words or add context to stories. At Global Press, we encourage reporters to lead these conversations, not wait for them to happen.
So, I’m sharing the three basic principles we use at Global Press to create style guide entries that ensure our news stories, from some of the least-covered places on earth, meet the dual standard of dignity and precision.
Global Press Style Guide Principle 1: Do not use words that force people to make assumptions.
When you read the term “developing world,” what does it mean to you? How about Global South?
In general, these terms are sanitized synonyms for poverty. They are typically used to mean places where poor (mostly Black and Brown) people live.
For some reason, we’ve come to accept these terms as sufficient to describe large parts of the world that have little else in common besides the presumption of poverty. Using words that force readers to make assumptions opens the journalist up to precision problems. And precision problems almost always have dignity consequences.
Whenever I share this example, I am invariably asked the same question: “What should I say instead?” The answer is not simple, because the world is not simple. And a style guide is not a thesaurus.
So, journalists must reach beyond vague terms to find more precise descriptors. If a story is about access to running water or health care, say that. If it’s a story about gross domestic product, use that. If a story is about poverty, write that.
Avoid the temptation to dump the majority of the world’s population into one giant bucket.
Style Guide Principle 2: Precision is required for dignity.
The Global Press Style Guide always opts for terms that provide accuracy in context. Precise terms are emboldened by context-rich descriptions, which are often necessary to prevent bias.
Word choice reinforces world view. We’re seeing this play out daily in the United States, as the terms “protester” and “rioter” are used interchangeably depending on the political bent of the news organization. Globally, words like “terrorist” or “rebel” are often used similarly without context, which promotes bias.
Similar to the developing world example, journalists must be mindful of cattle-herding people with imprecise terms. “People of color” is a timely example. It’s a term we don’t use at Global Press unless a source chooses to self-identify as such. Categorizing people as non-white may not help readers understand nuances of conflict, or worse may oversimplify complex topics that readers need and deserve to understand.
Fortunately, there is an easy fix for this one: Talk to your sources. Have open conversations about how they identify and what different terms mean to them. Even when uncomfortable or unfamiliar, the journalist must push for precision in order to ensure the source recognizes themself in the story. Readers always benefit from that.
Style Guide Principle 3: People should be referred to as people as often as possible.
Immigrant. Inmate. Victim. Voter.
Journalists must actively consider when it is appropriate and precise for a source to take a label. It is sometimes most economical or clearest to simply refer to “voters” or “migrants.” But journalists should always avoid labels that distill a person’s humanity to something that happened to them.
Take, for example, “victim” and “survivor.” In recent years we’ve seen a push away from the word victim in favor of survivor. But both labels achieve the same result — reducing a person to a terrible thing that happened to them.
The fix here lies in sentence structure. Describe an action or an event rather than making a person the distillation of that event. “She endured physical abuse at the hands of her husband for over a decade” is preferable to “She is a domestic abuse survivor.” Here, the source becomes more than a label, we understand her circumstance in context. Readers always benefit from active verbs and labelless sentences.
These rules can be applied to any story of any topic, but are particularly helpful in navigating stories about race and identity.