August 17, 2011

As journalists, we rely on details to enhance our stories. We “get the name of the dog” and try to be specific so we can offer clarity and tell the whole truth.

But when it comes to stories involving race and ethnicity, we’re anything but specific.

We often use the word “minorities” to describe anyone who isn’t white. It’s familiar and politically correct, but it does little to explain the people we’re referencing. And as people of color become a majority, the word is becoming increasingly inaccurate.

In response to Phuong Ly’s recent story about journalists’ use of “minorities,” one commenter called it a “dismissive” and “belittling” descriptive. Another said that people’s use of the word reflects “intellectual laziness.”

Merrill Perlman, a former director of the New York Times copy desks, told Ly that she has yet to see a good alternative for “minorities.” “Someone,” she said, “needs to invent a new word.”

Explaining what we really mean by “minorities”

There are some possible replacements for “minorities,” including AHANA — a term Boston College uses to refer to African, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans. But the problem with acronyms is that they, too, are vague. Coming up with a new term seems less important than explaining the meaning behind the terms we already use.

Terms such as “black,” “Hispanic,” “Native American” and “Asian American” are more descriptive than “minorities,” but they’re still general. Saying a girl is black only tells me the color of her skin and doesn’t reveal anything about where she or her family are from. Saying she’s Kenyan or Ugandan, however, does. This still doesn’t give me much information about the girl, but it’s more revealing than simply saying she’s a “minority.”

Some journalists have done a good job explaining what they mean by “minorities.” In an Aug. 15 story, the Boston Globe’s Martin Finucane used the word “minorities” then offered specifics:

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office has sued a Dorchester restaurant and bar and its owner, alleging that the establishment engaged in a pattern of not allowing minorities to enter. …

The lawsuit claims that one night in December 2010, two men of Cape Verdean and African descent were turned away from O’Neil’s on Dorchester Avenue. Then later that night, a group of friends of Cape Verdean, Spanish, and African descent were turned away. A third group of minorities was allegedly denied entry in April.

Finucane’s explanation provided an added layer of detail that gave me a better sense of who was turned away. It may have also made it easier for readers who are Cape Verdean, Spanish or African to relate to the story.

Knowing when race is relevant

There are many times when a source’s race is irrelevant and shouldn’t be included. Some news organizations such as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette still use racial identifiers in crime stories, despite criticism. In a related Romenesko post earlier this month, readers shared conflicting views. “When I read a crime story in a paper I immediately want to know race,” commenter Henry Potter said. But as commenter Rod Paul pointed out, “The racial description all too often is used only when the alleged criminal is not White.”

My former colleague Keith Woods once wrote that identifiers are rarely relevant or revealing. ” ‘Urban’ (a sociological term), ‘inner city’ (a geographic term), and ‘blue collar’ (an economic term), are employed to connote race and ethnicity,” he wrote. ” ‘Minority,’ a numerical term, is often used when the journalist actually has a specific racial group in mind, allowing for the ridiculous oxymoron, ‘majority minority.’ ”

Woods pointed out that “race often has relevance in stories. It’s just that the relevance goes unexplored and unexplained.” By offering context and avoiding generalities, we can help foster a healthy dialogue about race and ethnicity.

Being specific when race is relevant

When race is relevant, ask: “Is there a more specific way of describing this group of people?” And ask sources, “Which word or phrase do you identify with most?”

It’s easy to fall back on a blanket descriptive like “minorities.” When we tell diversity-related stories, we tiptoe through language to avoid linguistic landmines. We rely on widely accepted words and phrases because we feel safe using them. But in avoiding the appearance of bigotry, we also risk coded language that signals class or casts people as “the other.” In the process, we end up with stories that perpetuate labels rather than portraying people.

I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve often used the word “minorities.” When I’m unsure of what I’m trying to say, or I want to avoid sounding too critical, I write in generalities. But imprecise language can lead to misinterpretations and, in some cases, perpetuate stereotypes.

Capturing nuances, reflecting changes in the language

Now that demographics are shifting in the United States, it’s not as accurate as it once was to say “minorities.” As the world changes, language changes. Just think about all the AP Stylebook updates each year, and the new words and definitions that make their way into the dictionary.

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark said the word “minorities” may be going through a “semantic shift” — a change in the associations and meanings of words over time. “Sometimes the changes in a word take centuries,” Clark told me. “Other times it can happen very quickly.”

The word “girl,” for example, used to refer to a young person of either gender. The definition of “colored” has also shifted.

“The term ‘colored’ was used for a long time to designate African Americans until it was deemed offensive. And it only really referred to ‘black’ people,” Clark said. “Now we have ‘persons of color,’ which seems to be a synonym for non-white. As the population changes, a term like ‘person of color’ rather than ‘minority’ might be more appropriate.”

Some people, however, argue that “person of color” is as bad as “minorities” or worse. We also may be limited by the AP Stylebook or our newsrooms’ style. When that’s the case, it helps to be open with readers about why we use certain terms.

On its “About” page, the Asian American Journalists Association explains: “AAJA uses the term ‘Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ to embrace all Americans — both citizens and residents — who self-identify with one or more of the three dozen nationalities and ethnic groups in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands. We use this term to refer to our communities at large, as well as to our membership, which includes representatives from all these regions.”

Recently, the Los Angeles Times published a memo from Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann explaining why the Times uses “Latino” over “Hispanic.” Some readers applauded the Times for its decision, while others suggested the term is misleading and raises more questions than it answers.

That’s the problem with using one word or phrase to describe an entire group of people — it never fully captures the nuances of that group. Inevitably, some people  are going to feel slighted or mischaracterized.

There’s power in specificity, and in finding out more about the individuals behind the labels we use. The more specific we are about the people in our stories, the more accurate — and meaningful — our stories will be.

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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