Across the nation, newsrooms are looking both inward and outward, engaging in conversations about systemic racism and white supremacy while examining their own role in upholding these oppressive systems. In response, some organizations have made changes to their editorial “style guides” — the lists of in-house rules that dictate which words and phrases journalists use in their writing. Several newsrooms, including the influential Associated Press, have announced that they’ll capitalize “Black” when referring to culture or race. It’s a decision San Francisco State University Journalism Chair and Professor Rachele Kanigel applauds. “Words have the power to hurt and heal,” she said. “This is a really important step, because it gives respect and credibility that a lot of Black people hadn’t felt before.”
Kanigel is an authority on words and journalistic style. The former newspaper reporter edits The Diversity Style Guide, a website that was first published in 2016, and a companion book that was published in 2019. The website contains more than 700 entries of terms on race, ethnicity, gender identity, mental health, sexual orientation, religion, disability, suicide and substance abuse. The guide is meant to serve as a resource for journalists and other communicators writing about diverse communities.
To compile the guide, Kanigel and a handful of student assistants consulted 23 style guides created by groups like the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Center on Disability and Journalism and GLAAD and asked permission to use their materials. When she couldn’t find a reference for a problematic term, she would research it herself, attempting to capture the history and nuances of the word or phrase. A white cisgender woman, Kanigel says she’s comfortable editing The Diversity Style Guide because she’s consulting organizations that represent the expertise and perspectives of diverse communities. “I feel like I can speak with confidence, because I have this village behind me,” she said.
Kanigel thinks more media organizations should follow her lead. In newsrooms, decisions about word choice and style often fall to one person, often a copy editor. But hopefully these national conversations, spurred by the killing of George Floyd in May, will broaden that responsibility to more people, she says. In recent months, Kanigel has been consulting with media organizations grappling with these issues, helping them revise their style guides and leading workshops for staff.
“If you’re using terms that are offensive to certain communities then you’re alienating your readers and your sources. And you’re also losing credibility.”
While Kanigel has found plenty of resources to tap, that doesn’t mean her choices for the style guide are always easy. One of the most difficult decisions she made was whether to capitalize Black and white, she says. Not long ago, many of the resources she consulted were conflicted. The National Association for Black Journalists did not capitalize Black or white, for instance, (it changed its policy this year) but many publications serving Black and African American communities did capitalize Black, and some capitalized white. “I ended up talking to a lot of people and reading a lot of essays about this. And finally I decided to capitalize Black and White,” she said. (The SF State Style Guide capitalizes Black but not white.)
Now, just a few years later, Kanigel questions if she made the best choice. She decided to capitalize white for the sake of consistency, but others make the same choice for ideological reasons. “One thing that’s come up is a lot of white nationalists are capitalizing white, so it’s a little controversial,” she said.
Style guides and language in general are constantly changing, so Kanigel will keep thinking about the issue and perhaps make a new ruling later. Staying flexible and attuned to your audience are both key to remaining relevant, she says.
“If you’re using terms that are offensive to certain communities then you’re alienating your readers and your sources. And you’re also losing credibility,” she said. “Some of these words that are offensive are out of date and considered so because they’re untrue and, therefore, inaccurate.”
For example, the phrase “wheelchair bound” is often used by news outlets in stories, but it’s an inaccurate term. “A wheelchair is something that liberates a person with mobility issues,” Kanigel said. “It’s not accurately presenting the relationship between that person and that wheelchair.”
One way to avoid some of these pitfalls is by creating more diverse newsrooms, starting from the top on down, Kanigel says. “Too many newsrooms have very few people of color in leadership positions,” she said. “It’s really important to have as many different kinds of people at the table as possible. If you don’t have representatives of different groups at the table it’s very easy to forget about those communities.”
— Jamie Oppenheim