Shaw: ‘Racially charged’ to ‘racist’ a good AP style shift

AP updated its stylebook in the 2019 edition to ban usage of safe race euphemisms to describe or report on instances in which racism is clear.


Pete O'Shea

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Nichole Shaw, Opinions Columnist

The newspaper industry’s “bible” was updated and revised in late March/early April, and chaos ensued in the world of journalism as reactions were posted on social media. While some were outraged at the updated usage of the percent symbol, others embraced more nuanced changes.

One such change that I welcomed with open arms was the Associated Press decision to avoid using the phrases “racially charged,” “racially motivated,” or “racially tinged” when describing issues that center on the construct of race. Instead, the stylebook suggests using “racially divisive” to be more clear. However, the new AP style ban on using those phrases “as euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are truly applicable,” according to the 2019 AP Online Stylebook, is the change I most admire.

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The decision to move away from “racially charged” to “racist” or “racism” when it’s blatantly applicable is a huge shift in the right direction for addressing social issues that permeate our culture. It’s nice to see AP listening to the people and taking into consideration the facts of a situation, allowing journalists to consider the nature of an event or scene and how it can be relayed to the public fairly and accurately to the best of their knowledge.

When I say AP is actually listening to the people, I mean it. Starting in the 1950s, when the Civil Rights Movement was picking up steam, usage of such euphemisms as “racially charged,” “racially tinged,” “racially insensitive,” or “race-related” were being used more often to address events as they were occurring, according to Cornell historian Lawrence Glickman. Fast forward almost 70 years, and the usage of these euphemisms to describe scenes in which discriminatory actions are being taken against people of color like the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, or racist statements from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, comes across to those communities as inaccurate reporting and disguising the real actions.

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The usage of “racially charged” was a phrase that immediately pushed away minorities or people of color who were victims of such racism. In the usage of race euphemisms, journalists were invalidating the experiences of those victims and communities — whitewashing a scene — rather than accurately depicting information.

A foundational principle of journalism is to report as fairly and accurately as journalists can and relay that information to the best of their ability to the public. Racism is real and should be recognized in the media as an issue, rather than excused or conveniently overlooked with safe usage of race-related euphemisms. When white people call the police on black people who are doing everyday activities, those are acts of racism. The general public needs to recognize it as such. With journalists as the gatekeepers of information, they have the responsibility of relaying information to the public as accurately and fairly as possible — and that includes reporting on racism.

“By not confronting racism or reducing it to matter of opinion on an individual or systemic level in our journalism — the first draft of history — we leave a less accurate record for those who come behind us,” Associated Press national writer on race and ethnicity Errin Haines Whack said. “We are not in the hint business; we are here to report facts, including the difficult facts of racism.”

I could not agree more.