This week, I wanted to talk to you about the evolution of language, including its use in the Half Moon Bay Review, On the Coastside magazine and our other associated publications. Specifically, I wanted to talk about race and the words we use to describe it.
It’s a conversation that is all around us and it’s painfully late coming. Systemic inequalities have plagued our nation. You see them in our schools, in the criminal justice system, in housing and in so many other aspects of society. From birth, some of us are set up to flourish while others are left to struggle. As a result, in the wake of recent events from Milwaukee to Louisville to Atlanta and beyond, American institutions are finally on trial. That includes the Fourth Estate — the journalistic institutions that protect, prod and perplex government across the country. News reporters and editors struggle to overcome our own implicit bias and sometimes even overt racism.
My pledge to you is this: Every day we try to be better. We will make ourselves uncomfortable by confronting our own feelings about race, and importantly we will challenge long-held conventions in the language that we use. In doing so, we will continue to be guided by industry leaders like the Associated Press, which produces a stylebook that is a bible of sorts for American journalism.
If you ever wonder why we don’t use the honorific “Dr.” in front of the name of a someone who holds a doctorate or why we capitalize "Realtor," the answers can be found in the AP Stylebook. It reads somewhat like a dictionary of common terms. Following the commands for hundreds of entries builds consistency and that consistent use of the language is a hallmark of a professional news outlet. The vast majority of U.S. newspapers lean on AP style, which changes through the years, though usually at a glacial pace. Usually, those changes are arcane. The AP said it was OK to use % for “percent” a couple years ago sending news nerds into a frenzy.
Last week, the AP issued new guidance for race and we took notice. The AP recommended “Black” be capitalized “as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges.” We began doing so in today’s edition of the Half Moon Bay Review.
As Review copy editor (and language style stickler) Julie Gerth pointed out, the entry for “race” took less than a single column in the stylebook prior to 2018. That year's new edition filled one page. By the 2019 update, the subject took up three pages of the book. If the new guidance is any indication, the 2020 book will include much more. It begins:
“Reporting and writing about issues involving race calls for thoughtful consideration, precise language, and an openness to discussions with others of diverse backgrounds about how to frame coverage or what language is most appropriate, accurate and fair. Avoid broad generalizations and labels; race and ethnicity are one part of a person’s identity. Identifying people by race and reporting on actions that have to do with race often go beyond simple style questions, challenging journalists to think broadly about racial issues before having to make decisions on specific situations and stories.”
This is hardly the end of this discussion or these changes. We continue to think about terms like “Latinx” and “American Indian” as it relates to Native Americans. Old habits are hard to break, and old editors are bound to make mistakes as things change. But it’s important to recognize the role language plays in positive social change and in the continued subjugation of people. This newspaper was once filled with terms we would never use today. We think we’re a better newspaper as a result of a more thoughtful approach.
As always, the editor’s door is open (at least virtually for the time being.) I’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Clay Lambert