Reporting on Racial Justice and Racism: Tips from Our Newsletter
Last Updated September 2022
The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on racial justice and racism published in our weekly newsletter, Freeze Frame. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.
Language & Word Choice
November 4, 2021
When should reporters use the phrase, “critical race theory?”
As infrequently as possible. “Critical race theory” has become what the field of semiotics calls a “floating signifier.” That means a word or phrase no longer has a broadly agreed upon meaning. For instance, English speakers know “car” refers to a motor vehicle on four wheels. But “critical race theory” now means whatever an interpreter wants it to mean. In its original definition, “critical race theory” is a framework for legal scholarship, not a curriculum actually being taught in U.S. grade schools. But Republican lawmakers and their supporters now use the phrase to refer to essentially any teachings of race or anti-racism in schools. The initial phrase has been co-opted precisely because its original definition is less well-known by the public and it could be transformed into a codeword for talking about race at all.
Thus, right now, that phrase has no real, consistent meaning in public discourse; it is merely a political prop. Reporters should only use it when directly quoting a public figure for reasons of newsworthiness. Using the phrase to describe any trends in education without the context of political movement building on the right is to provide cover for bad faith arguments over public education. Detractors of teaching students about race are not referring to actual critical race theory, so to name them “critics of critical race theory” or the like is inaccurate. If parents and activists are fighting against teaching racism and accurate history in schools, their arguments should be described as such.
December 9, 2021
Should reporters use the word “Latinx” to describe Hispanic and/or Latino/a populations?
A conversation about the term “Latinx” popped up in journalism circles thanks to a national poll from a Miami-based research firm that was reported on by POLITICO. The poll said only 2% of Hispanic voters chose the term “Latinx” to describe their ethnic background whereas 40% were bothered or offended by the term. The Pew Research Center also recently found that only 3% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino use “Latinx” to describe themselves.
What does this mean for journalists seeking to consistently use inclusive language? Well, certainly that “Latinx” is not a popular choice for self-identification and, if it is not popular among those it is meant to describe, likely shouldn’t be the default term for describing groups or populations. Should it be banned from all reporting? Not necessarily. Journalists should continue to ask their sources to describe their race and ethnicity in their own words and to follow through with using that language when relevant to their reporting. The only way to know you’re using the “right” or accurate term is to ask the person you’re reporting on, and there are undoubtedly people for whom Latinx is the correct answer.
March 10, 2022
What does “culture war” mean? How can journalists use it accurately when reporting on topics of increased public debate?
“Culture war” is a phrase popularized by sociologist James Davison Hunter some 30 years ago to describe conflict over culture — our values, beliefs, and how we live — playing out in the political sphere. Issues given the “culture war” label by news media include laws that target parents of trans children for prosecution, barring LGBTQ and racial injustice education for children, abortion rights, and COVID-19 mitigation.
Defining these as issues of “culture” is misleading. Conflict over such issues is not debate for debate’s sake. Erasing racism and queer communities from our education system is a step toward erasing people of color and LGBTQ people from existence. Eliminating gender-affirming healthcare for kids is a step toward erasing trans adults. Barring access to abortion is a step toward controlling women’s bodies and lives. Banning measures that diffuse the effects of a deadly pandemic costs lives. These issues aren’t about “values” or “how we live,” they’re about who gets to live.
Lumping debates over whose life is worthy and free into the term “culture wars” dilutes the serious and often deadly consequences of whose “values” are enshrined into law. Journalists should avoid using this shorthand and apply the language of human rights and their violations when the issue is life and death for the “loser” of said war.
May 19, 2022
Use scare quotes around “replacement theory,” avoid adding “great,” and avoid capitalization. Using quotation marks around a phrase when they’re not required (as in a direct quote) is a way of subtly casting doubt or illegitimacy on that phrase. Capitalizing a phrase to create a proper noun, on the other hand, connotes legitimacy. Finally, “great” connotes, well, greatness which is certainly not the case here.
Use “conspiracy theory” carefully. The term, historically, connotes a wide range of theories from the silly to the serious. It may be an appropriate label for “replacement theory,” but that itself is so closely tied to the larger worldview of white supremacy that journalists should be careful not to mix the two. In 2020, Buzzfeed News editors explained why they refer to QAnon as a “collective delusion” rather than a conspiracy theory based on its complexity and larger implications: “We are discussing a mass of people who subscribe to a shared set of values and debunked ideas, which inform their beliefs and actions.” I think that’s worth consideration when referring to the larger network of white supremacy driven partially by conspiratorial thinking.
Avoid “lone wolf” as a descriptor for mass shooters. It may be the case that a perpetrator has acted alone or is reportedly unengaged in their social environs like school or work. This moniker, however, belies the community that white supremacists and domestic terrorists find online on their paths to radicalization. The “lone wolf” name treats an event like the Buffalo shooting as an isolated incident rather than one tied to a deep and ongoing history of racist violence in the U.S.
Violence motivated by white supremacy is terrorism in its basic, if not legal, definition. Newsrooms should use the language of terrorism when referring to broader trends in ideologically-motivated racist violence, if not in reference to suspects who have not been formally charged with “terrorism.”
Avoid calling writings attributed to an extremist “manifestos.” Both NPR and the AP Stylebook wrote that they don’t use the term to describe racist screeds because it lends legitimacy and gravitas to despicable writings. I, frankly, am not convinced its contemporary popular connotation is one of gravitas in the U.S., but in the U.K. the word “manifesto” is used regularly to describe official political documents. Thus, I’m willing to be persuaded as words like “diatribe,” “screed,” “document” and “writings” work just as well.
The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism
Printing Hate is a series which “uncovers the widespread practice of publishing headlines that accelerated lynchings and massacres” in the U.S. The massive collaboration between the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and the University of Arkansas will published two stories per week through mid-December 2022. (Note: The series includes graphic descriptions and images.) This is critical work that should be required reading for journalists everywhere.
A Better Way to Tell Protest Stories
Danielle K. Brown and Summer Harlow, Center for Media Engagement
We’re big fans of the Center for Media Engagement and the research of Danielle K. Brown and Summer Harlow (whose work heavily influenced our study of Philadelphia protest coverage, by the way). So when we saw them all team up, we knew we’d learn a ton from their research on humanizing and legitimizing protest coverage of underrepresented groups. You will too.
The racial bias in western media’s Ukraine coverage is shameful
Nadine White, The Independent
Far too many journalists have made racist comments when reporting on Ukraine and those impacted by further Russian invasion. Not only do these comments advance white supremacy, but they also illustrate a double standard in how wars are covered in western media depending on who is doing the invading and what the victims look like. Nadine White explains these examples and their consequences at the Independent, making her a must-read.
Call Out Bigotry in Reporting on the Ukraine Invasion
Issac J. Bailey, Nieman Reports
‘They seem so like us’: In depicting Ukraine’s plight, some in media use offensive comparisons
Sarah Ellison and Travis M. Andrews, Washington Post
For Ukraine — and all news coverage — journalists need to pay attention to word choices
Doris Truong, Poynter
How a Philly-born brand of TV news harmed Black America.
Layla A. Jones, the Philadelphia Inquirer
As part of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s “A More Perfect Union” series, in which they examine “the roots of systemic racism in America through institutions founded in Philadelphia,” Layla A. Jones reports on the birth of Eyewitness and Action News. These brands may have began in Philly, but they spread their editorial sensibilities and aesthetics — and thus their racial stereotyping — to local stations across the U.S. Considering how many Americans still get the majority of their news via TV, we all should understand the history of this format and its negative impacts.
How Tucker Carlson Stoked White Fear to Conquer Cable
The New York Times published a three-part series on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s extremist programming and the series is more relevant than ever. The first part dives deep into his rise to power and the second focuses on his reshaping of Fox News. The third part is an interactive analysis of 1,150 episodes of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” that illustrates how he pushes extremist views and conspiracy theories to millions of Americans. It’s a necessary history lesson for any journalist writing about democracy and white supremacy in the U.S.
Fear of a Black Hobbit
Adam Serwer, The Atlantic
From The Little Mermaid to Lord of the Rings, there has been no shortage of outrage lately over the inclusion of characters of color in pop culture’s fictional, mythical worlds. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer explains how these backlashes against “wokeness” seek to make all pop culture explicitly anti-progressive.
Thoughts & Thinkers
Capital B Atlanta’s Jewel Wicker is 100% right here. Referring to the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse by his name is appropriate. Ahmaud Arbery, on the other hand, was killed in 2020. Defendants Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. were the ones on trial. Arbery’s name may be more recognizable than those who stand accused of killing him, but that’s no excuse for structuring a push notification to read like he’s the one on trial. This should be reworded to make clear who is who.
Not much else needs to be said about Rest of World executive editor Anup Kaphle’s take on a very tone deaf New York Times headline, but there’s much to be learned from it!
Nikole Hannah-Jones is referring to assigning blame for U.S. Democrats’ 2021 losses on election day on the euphemistic “education,” when multiple Republicans ran on fearmongering over “critical race theory” in schools. Any reporters on this beat need to ground their work in how race and racism impact all facets of U.S. electoral politics. Be sure to include the context of white grievance in reporting on past and future elections and avoid evasive phrases like “educational freedom” and “parent control of education” in these conversations.
First and foremost, as Abdallah Fayyad of the Boston Globe illustrates, this conversation isn’t a zero-sum game. Empathy is not a pie, where a bigger slice here means a smaller slice there.
Stereotypes like comedian Mohanad Elshieky describes come from many places, news media included. “War is the culture of the aggressor” is the key here.
Journalist Jacky Kemigisa wrote an enthusiastic thread on how coverage of Ukraine looks different than that of other recent wars. This tweet raises a great question: whose fighting is overtly supported and whose is not?
To be U.S.-centric for a second: journalist Katelyn Burns brings up another apt comparison for the double standard of coverage.
Reporter Christopher Ingraham helpfully gathered some examples of evasive language from major media orgs regarding the tenor of the GOP’s questioning of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearings. Let’s tease out the hypothetical decision-making here. If the parts of these hearings in question were overtly about race more broadly, the newsrooms would not use phrases like “racially tinged” as they’d be justified in directly referring to them as “about race” or some such. So they clearly mean something else.
What they mean is some of those questioning Jackson did so in a way that was clearly antagonistic toward Jackson because of her race. That’s quite literally the definition of racism. So, why not use “racist” instead?
Some excuses you might hear in a newsroom are that it’s a “strong word” or even that it describes a kind of intent that journalists can’t know. But if your newsroom policy relies on someone admitting they are being racist before calling their actions racist, you’ll be waiting a long time — while denying what everyone else can see with their own eyes. For the record, even the Associated Press Stylebook advises against such euphemisms.
We had hoped, like Femi Redwood of WCBS Newsradio 880 and 1010 WINS, that the lessons of the past few years would stick. But it seems the journalistic need for access and decades of treating institutions as vessels of truth makes taking official statements for granted as fact a hard habit to break.
Read the plea of Dr. Letrell Crittenden of the American Press Institute over again. Under no circumstances should the racist lies of “replacement theory” be legitimized by equating them to “worries about demographic change.”
Unfortunately this trend, pointed out by Northwestern’s Dr. Steven Thrasher, is all too common in news media. Black victims of violence are aged up while white perpetrators of violence are aged down.
Dr. Joan Donovan of the Shorenstein Center brings up an important point. While journalists and pundits continue referring to “replacement theory” as shorthand for this particular motive for violent extremism, shortening it to “GRT” as an ironic nod to the misuse of “critical race theory” is misguided. Turning such a serious topic into a linguistic “gotcha” moment only waters down the danger.
Human rights lawyer Qasim Rashid, Esq. makes a painful point about our “justice” system by comparing the fates of Jayland Walker, a Black man killed by police in Ohio, and Crimo, the white Highland Park parade shooter.
The illustrations writer and researcher Shaikha AlHashem posted here are from The Economist’s recent story “MBS: despot in the desert“ about Muhammad bin Salman. But these illustrations don’t specifically depict MBS as an individual at all. Instead, they use the traditional keffiyeh scarf worn by many Arab men and its pattern to create a generic image of an Arab man — all inscribed with images of weapons like bombs, bullets, and swords. Racist, xenophobic, and dangerous is correct.
November 4, 2021
Above is the initial headline attached to a New York Times story about the homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two men and wounded another during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020. Rittenhouse’s attorneys argued that he acted in self-defense. At no point would a verdict in this case declare Rittenhouse a “hero” and it is appalling for the Times to suggest that, if found not guilty of homicide charges, a person who fatally shot two protesters would be declared a hero by default. This headline, which also made it to print, was quickly changed online to the version below. If the initial headline was attempting to lay out the defense’s position in this trial, the updated version does so more accurately.
May 19, 2022
All of the headlines below refer to “replacement theory,” a racist delusion that accuses Jews and Democrats of trying to extinguish the white race in the U.S. through demographic change. The articles trace its origins in response to the “theory” being cited by the May 2022 Buffalo shooter in online writings about his motives to gun down grocery store customers in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
The above headline, from the New York Times, accurately describes how this “theory” proliferated online and has been taken up to varying degrees by today’s Republican party. But calling it a “fringe conspiracy theory,” even in describing its evolution, belies just how pervasive this delusion now is. It’s been referenced by multiple mass shooters in their motives for violence and its core tenets are regularly espoused on popular TV programs like “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
The Washington Post headline above treats the connection between this “theory” and the G.O.P even more gently. The choice of calling conservative media simply “familiar” with it is maybe an attempt at some “wink-wink” irony. But unless you know the depth to which conservative media has pushed this theory forward you may believe they are simply glancingly familiar with it. Referring to it as the “Buffalo suspect’s” “theory” may be accurate in that it’s the theory that motivated the shooter, but it is not theirs alone by any means. This, again, would be confusing for anyone not already familiar with the trajectory of this delusion.
By contrast, the Guardian headline above is plain about its purpose: it wants readers to understand what “replacement theory” is. Unlike the other two headlines it doesn’t beat around the bush about what the theory is: racist lies. All three stories are attempting to explain this phenomenon to an audience being affected by the violence it incites, but only one headline is straightforward about its lack of legitimacy.
September 1, 2022
Jackson, Mississippi is experiencing a significant climate emergency after flooding of Pearl River exacerbated an already stressed water system. Residents have been under a boil water advisory since July and now many are without water at all. The failing water system is nothing new. As the NPR headline below describes, this most recent crisis is the result of years of neglect.
But that’s not the full story. The neglect of the Jackson water system is a direct result of white flight in earlier decades and disinvestment in infrastructure in Black communities. The Slate headline below tops an interview with environmental and climate justice activist Catherine Coleman Flowers and addresses this head-on. Though the NPR story does mention that a shrinking population and lack of political will led to this crisis, it doesn’t name the elephant in the room.