March 6, 2009

When WREG-TV in Memphis began investigating complaints about local locksmiths recently, the station discovered that locksmiths would quote customers one price when they started a job. After it was complete, they would hand the customer a much larger bill than expected.

News Director Bruce Moore said his station’s investigation uncovered that these locksmiths are engaged in illegal and deceptive practices. And there was an interesting twist. The news reporters learned that reputable locksmiths have names for these operators, who are dispatched from a call center in Florida. They call them “rogue” or “gypsy” locksmiths. 

While working on the script, the word gypsy sounded alarms, said Moore. He wondered whether using such a description would be relying on a stereotype and therefore seem insensitive. Would it be appropriate to use such stereotypes even though that’s how other locksmiths referred to them? Moore contacted Poynter via e-mail about his concerns.

Al Tompkins, Poynter’s broadcast/online group leader, responded that “Yes, the word gypsy is off limits unless they are gypsies as in Roma gypsies (which I doubt.) You would be promoting a stereotype that I suspect most people are unaware of. The word jip is also a reference to gypsies. Do these stereotypes hurt? Yes. An estimated 600,000 gypsies were killed in the Holocaust along with Jews and gays.”

As a former ethics and diversity faculty member at Poynter, I agree with Tompkins. Anytime you promote a stereotype, you undermine your credibility. Relying on stereotypes for descriptions also becomes shorthand that can be misinterpreted. It creates images in the minds of viewers and readers. Those images tend to vary from one person to another.

For example, when you use the word gypsy, are you referring to the Rom, who came from Serbia, the Ludar from southern and eastern Europe, the Romnichels from England or a group from Germany or Hungary?

More often than not, stereotypical terms result in confusion about what you want to describe. More important than being sensitive is upholding the fundamental value of accuracy.

The best way to be accurate is to be specific. Use facts and descriptions that accurately convey the subjects of your story by describing specifically what these locksmiths do and don’t do compared to certified, law-abiding locksmiths.

WREG ultimately decided not to use the word gypsy. “We were already leaning against using it, even though many people still use it freely,” Moore said after the story aired. “Common use doesn’t excuse insensitivity.”

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
Aly Colón

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