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Home > Publications > Quill > The language of race


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Friday, March 28, 2008
The language of race

Holly Edgell

Practicing journalism in mid-Missouri poses challenges and opportunities when it comes to matters of diversity.

A broadcast journalist based in Columbia (the area’s largest city) or Jefferson City (the state capital) must be able to report effectively and relate to viewers who live nearby in small towns and rural communities.

Columbia is also home to the University of Missouri and two small liberal arts colleges. It is a growing community with a diverse population. Student journalists at the University of Missouri recently got a taste of what it’s like to report on smaller surrounding communities that are not quite as diverse. Two stories raised issues about the language of race and whether to air racially charged terms

In one story, a school district elected not to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, deciding to instead use the day to make up for time lost to bad weather earlier in the school year. The story aired by KOMU-TV, the local NBC affiliate owned by the university, included a sound bite in which a source used the word “colored” to describe a black person.

The other story, aired a few weeks later, was about an elementary school teacher who used the “n-word” in class when talking about the civil rights era. The story that aired included a sound bite from a source that used the word “mixed” to describe a biracial child in the class.

The faculty in the KOMU-TV newsroom, who double as news managers, decided to use our weekly ombudsman segment “Your View” to address our approach to both stories. I was interviewed for the segment, which you can see at www.komu.com by clicking on the Your View tab.

Basically, I said that KOMU-TV tries not to censor what people in the community are saying, even when what they’re saying may be unpalatable to many. My faculty colleagues and I agreed that airing the sound bites allowed our audience to see and hear the kinds of language some mid-Missourians use, even today. And, because both sound bites were part of stories in which the specter of the nation’s race problem raised its persistent head, we thought it was especially important to air them.

Still, I used the second incident as a teaching moment in our post-newscast meeting the day the story aired. Some of the student producers and reporters working that day knew in the “mixed” comment they had heard something they were not quite comfortable with, but the young man who actually reported the story saw nothing wrong with the term. We also talked about the “colored” incident. This is a word most students recognized as not only outdated, but also offensive.

I advised the students that if they found themselves hearing words from their sources that they felt uncomfortable with, they should talk the issue over with a faculty member in the newsroom.

Brad Belote of KSPR-TV (ABC) in Springfield, Mo., and Mike Fabac of KXAN-TV (NBC) in Austin, Texas, shared their thoughts.

“If the decision is to include the sound, it would be important to include an explanation in the story set-up,” Fabac said. “Additionally, rationale for the decision should be included within the body of the report.”

Belote said: “It’s not our job to sanitize what people say. Should we be aware of our audience and time periods? Yes, so things that are patently offensive or likely to spark the FCC’s interest should be given the utmost scrutiny. But if our sources are not enlightened, that’s their problem. If anything, we are giving light to corners of the world we like to think don’t exist but somehow continue to do so.”

Both Fabac and Belote said their newsrooms handle the language of race on a case-by-case basis. Fabac said his newsroom personnel know what to do when challenging issues come up:

“If a question about language, ethics or anything else out of the ordinary arises, our storytelling field crews are directed to engage a newsroom manager immediately.”

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