PC, Language of the Newsroom, and Roland Martin

Jim Romenesko links to an interesting blog by John L. Robinson about the language of the newsroom and suggests that journalists–who make their livings with words–shouldn’t feel constrained by pushing the boundaries of taste and sensitivities in their everyday interactions.

Here’s a flavor of Robinson’s larger point:

I know this makes me sound like one of those nutcases that blames everything bad in society today on the PC culture. Nope, not me. I’m glad that people can’t smoke in the newsroom. I support the limitation of dropping F-bombs. Newsrooms and news coverage has been vastly improved by the gender and racial diversification of the staff. Lowering the sexual tension and chauvistic temperature is a must.

But sometimes people who make their living with colorful, descriptive words can’t help themselves. And the image the reporter evoked fits exactly what happened. Sorta.

I’m sympathetic to Robinson’s larger point.  I love a good joke and have made my share of off-handed, colorful comments at work.  But I also know, as a manager, that what I say does matter to the people around me and the people I supervise.  I can’t and shouldn’t talk at work the way I do with my friends, over drinks.

Robinson used the term “PC”–which, no offense to Robinson, is one of the laziest terms in the world–to describe concern about how comments may be heard by other people and suggested that journalists should be given some leeway in the newsroom since we are asked to “speak truth to power and that they don’t back down when put off.”

The irony, of course, is that fighting against discrimination and inappropriate language is speaking truth to power and refusing to back down.  It was those with power in the newsrooms of old that used salty language and inappropriate behavior to maintain their power.

Ask the earliest women in the newsroom, ask the earliest openly-gay reporters in the newsroom or the first Hispanic or Asian-American or Native American or African American journalists in the newsrooms.  Being willing to speak to power about the offensive things they heard on a day-to-day basis was a battle between those with control and those without it.

All of this, of course, gets back to how we communicate now.  Robinson’s first point was about a Facebook posting.  The recent publicity over tweets by Roland Martin and Jason Whitlock show that banter across a cubicle wall is different from posting to 50,000 followers on Twitter, who then can retweet to 50,000 of their close friends.

It’s not PC to suggest that something you say to a friend across the cubicle wall is going to have a different impact than something you post on Facebook or Twitter, where the comment can live forever without any of the relationship or physicality that goes with interpreting comments.

I’ve acknowledged that I wasn’t that offended by Martin’s comments when I first heard him because I’ve seen him on TV and followed his twitter feed.  I know the way he talks and, in that context, I could see him saying stupid things while trash talking without intending them to be homophobic.

But the people who knew him weren’t his only audience.  The people who watch him on TV weren’t his only audience.  The people he was trash-talking with weren’t his only audience.  And that’s where he, rightfully, got in trouble.

That’s where the language of the newsroom gets complicated.  Yes, we want journalists to use the language well and the nature of newsrooms and workplaces means an off-color comment or inappropriate comment should maybe be tolerated.  I’m very sympathetic to Robinson’s largely point that we shouldn’t feel we are bound by soome totalitarian speech police that stifles creativity and intellect.

But we also have to recognize the people you are joking with aren’t the only audience.  And if you are going to put it on Facebook or Twitter, then it’s a completely different ball game.

5 Responses

  1. A note on the daily tip memo mentioned that some “welfare mother” had called complaining that funeral home wouldn’t accept her infant’s body. Luckily the “welfare mother’s” name was included on the tip sheet. That’s how I realized the woman had been profiled because her daughter’s life depended on a medical innovation. By the way, the woman wasn’t on welfare. But her child was covered by Medicaid.
    When I pointed this out to various editors, I got a shrug. So they were wrong. So what? Shrinking circulation in a city that was becoming majority-minority, that’s what. A newspaper staff that was disconnected from a potential audience and didn’t care, that’s what.
    That’s why journalists need to watch their mouths: too often, our words betray our attitudes.

  2. […] Michael Triplett at NLGJA responds. I agree with everything he […]

  3. I agree with everything you say, Michael.

  4. I spent seven years working for alternative papers (the Bay Guardian, the Berkeley Barb, etc.) and nearly 26 working for the San Francisco Chronicle. During that time I did my share of exposing crooked politicians, corrupt building inspectors, brutal cops and other abusers of power. But as time went on, I saw less and less of that sort of reporting in newspapers. Funny, but when I pick up a paper these days — any paper — I see almost no truth being spoken to power.

    Today’s reporters are basically stenographers who take down what they are told by PR people and spin doctors. They wouldn’t dare point out that their “sources” are liars, even though a large majority of them are exactly that. A couple of weeks ago, the ombudsman for the by-God-New-York-Times even suggested it is wrong for a reporter to write a news story that flatly reports that a politician is telling falsehoods. Apparently that would violate the sacrosanct rules of objectivity. Better to let them get away with lying than to look like you are choosing sides, I guess . . .

    On the other hand, I love the way people romanticize old-time reporters as bastions of truth and exposers of corruption. Unfortunately, it’s a bunch of hooey. Almost nobody took on Joe McCarthy or Dick Nixon back in the day when they were lying about people being communists, even though reporters then were supposed to be cynical and aggressive as hell; very few would take either on today, any more than they do habitual liars like Bachman, McConnell or Cantor. The reason is simple: reporters who don’t cater to those in power and simply serve up conventional wisdom get fired. Telling the truth gets in the way of selling ads, and that is what the news business is really all about . . .

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