January 22, 2007

John Mills of KMOV-TV in St. Louis raises a good issue:

“In Tuesday’s (Barack) Obama coverage, the AP in Washington used race as a noun in the lead of its national newspaper piece — “the first black” — in describing Obama. USA Today, the NY Times, the Wa Post, Investors Business Daily did not use “black” as a noun. In coverage a while back, the AP called Obama “the lone black” in the U.S. Senate. This seems to be unethical at best, racist at worst…

“I wasn’t working on a story at the time. I called the Washington DC print bureau of the AP. I spoke with the duty editor, and I was transferred to the “Political Editor” who was in charge of the Obama story that morning… Of using the term “black” as a noun when reporting on Obama… the editor told me: “That’s the reality.” Major newspapers don’t seem to agree. Please write a story about this issue.”

We forwarded John’s question to several Poynter faculty, prompting this response from Dean of Faculty Keith Woods:

“Using color as a noun reduces the person to a species, and an imprecise one at
that, particularly where Obama is concerned. He’s bi-racial and, thus, more than
a ‘black.’ But the larger issue for me is that it’s an act of dehumanizing the
person, summoning up their essence by rendering them an inanimate color.

“It’s no
more complicated than that, and the solution is as simple as turning race/color
into an adjective and adding man, woman, politician, father, etc. If that takes
more effort to craft a headline, lead, super or crawl, well, that’s a problem
for journalists that the subjects of their journalism and the rest of the
consuming public ought not have to shoulder.”

Please add your views here.

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The Dean of Faculty, Keith teaches reporting on race relations, editing, persuasive writing, ethics and diversity. He's a former reporter, city editor, editorial writer and…
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