April 30, 2010

On Flux

When I first read the column in which black youths were referred to as “colored,” I simply chalked it up as the latest outrage from the Opinion section of the Springfield News-Leader. I never intended to comment on it.

There was a lot of chatter about it in our department. All of my colleagues in journalism were aghast that “colored” had been allowed to stand. Dr. Mark Paxton decided to write a letter about it.

It was the News-Leader’s response to Paxton that led me to begin my current campaign to change the News-Leader — at the very least to gain an apology to the community. As noted earlier, here is what the News-Leader published in response to a professor of journalism (i.e. someone who knows what he’s talking about — he also happens to teach our class on opinion journalism):

Editor’s note: We try to give writers flexibility in terms to express themselves. Terms involving race are always sensitive, but it should be noted that the use of colored, negro, black or African-American are in flux.

The first statement is completely reasonable. The first independent clause of the second sentence states a cultural fact. But the second independent clause is an arrogant dismissal (note the passive voice) that is contrary to the lessons of recent history and contrary to the ethical norms of journalism — shockingly so.

“Colored” was the mark of American apartheid in the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Some Americans had to suffer, for example, the indignity of using separate and inferior facilities — marked “colored” — merely because of the color of their skin.

Further, the assertion that this term is in “flux” is incorrect and absurd. If that were the case, the AP Stylebook would surely note it. It doesn’t. It’s advice is clear: “In some societies, including the United States, the word is considered derogatory and should not be used.”

So what’s going at the News-Leader?

That’s difficult to say. I cannot think of any reason why anyone in journalism would think — contrary to AP and SPJ — that the use of “colored,” in the context it was used, is anything other than an editorial lapse that demands correction and apology.

2 Responses

  1. Ed Peaco 

    Is “colored” really a racial slur? Even if somehow the answer is no, the question of the non-editing of op-ed pieces remains …

    Recent “Colored” references from pop culture that muddy the waters:

    http://tinyurl.com/ye4tvj4

    http://tinyurl.com/2fwbd8f

    http://tinyurl.com/2ancjm8

  2. acline 

    Ed… In the context of the column, it was a slur.

    Plus, AP style cares nothing for pop culture. No water muddied. It is clear: derogatory. Period.

    And the SPJ code is clear.