Friday, July 17, 2020

The letter and the spirit

A reminder from the local fishwrap last week that it doesn't do a lot of good to follow the letter of the law if you ignore the spirit of the law.

Some background, in case you haven't been paying attention: The Gannett empire announced in mid-June that it would join other news outlets in capitalizing the "B":

Through a series of internal conversations that began with the USA TODAY diversity committee and ultimately cascaded across our network of local news organizations, we have reviewed our current stylebook and are making the following change:

Effective immediately, the USA TODAY Network — one of the nation’s largest print and digital media companies — will capitalize B when describing Black culture, ethnicity and communities of people.

My view, which is worth every penny of your subscription price: Good. This was overdue. Now provide the resources to enable smart, sensitive editing at the hubs that will put your style into practice, because otherwise you're just dressing up the cop blotter with a small orthographic change:

According to the City of Westland Police Department, two or three Black males began arguing inside a perfume store in the mall, which is located at 35000 Warren Road. 

Stylebooks and textbooks have long cautioned against randomly tossing race and ethnicity into news coverage. Here's the 1999 version of the Freep's own stylebook, for example, under "race":

Identify a person or situation by race, ethnic origins, religion, etc., only if that information is relevant and essential.

And under "crime":

When writing about suspects, physical descriptions are useful only if they give enough information for a reader to identify the person. Race, ethnic origin, religion, etc., are relevant in detailed descriptions -- ones that fit very few people. The following is NOT a detailed description: a man about 6 feet 1, in his mid-30s, Hispanic, wearing light-colored clothing. 

The AP (2019 version) is blunter about the underlying reasons:

Consider carefully when deciding whether to identify people by race. Often, it is an irrelevant factor and drawing unnecessary attention to someone's race or ethnicity can be interpreted as bigotry.

This is your occasional reminder that proofreading is not the same thing as editing. The change in style didn't just fall out of the sky. It arose from a series of sharp reminders that news language ought to be taken seriously. (As we like to remind students in editing classes: No, I don't know what you meant, but I have a really good idea of what you said.) The new rule is about what to do when ethnicity is relevant -- not a lowering of the bar for relevance. If anything, it's implicitly a call to think more closely about what "relevant" and "essential" look like and at who should make those decisions.

Again, I'm not blaming the overworked hub editor who had neither the time nor the social capital to throw a flag on this one. It'd be nice, though, if the system was built in a way that rewarded the editor who pointed out that "two Black dudes arguing at the mall" is exactly what the spirit of the stylebook is meant to stop.

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