Each week, we feature journalists who have affected powerful change. This week it’s Sarah Glover, immediate past president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) who wrote an open letter to the news media and the Associated Press to capitalize “B” when reporting about the Black community. Soon after her letter, AP made the momentous change and many newsrooms who use it as their style bible did, too. (Note: Public Integrity made the switch earlier.)
Glover, along with other prominent Black journalists have long argued that capitalizing the “B” in Black is in line with capitalizing Asian, Hispanic and African American. “It’s to bring humanity to a group of people who have experienced forms of oppression and discrimination since they first came to the United States as enslaved people,” she wrote.
*Q&A lightly edited for brevity.
After our newsroom made this change, we had feedback from readers who argue that with all that’s going on — a pandemic, economic downturn –– does this change in style really matter?
Journalism is a public service. Presenting news and information is the foundation of the free press. A good story shines a light, elevates new perspectives and tells untold stories. Sometimes the news is complex and there isn’t a more complex topic deserving of coverage than race relations in 2020. George Floyd’s tragic and untimely death by a Minneapolis police officer brought to the surface of the American psyche the horrors of institutionalized racism. The case made to capitalize the “B” in Black is about dismantling assigned identity in language by those in power in the media (often white people) and affirming a particular community and how it defines itself. Use of the capital “B” in news reporting style in some ways mirrors the systemic inequality so many everyday citizens are working to eradicate.
Ironically, journalists will find themselves covering these protests. Yet the media industry must do more than simply cover the protest, it must reckon with and change itself, too. The media industry must dismantle its own biases. The complex history of race in society shows up in how journalism publications assign meaning with words and coverage. Unpacking this is as relevant as the coverage of the pandemic.
For centuries, Black people have borne the brunt of institutionalized racism. Words matter.
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One of the hold-ups on the decision to capitalize B was indecision whether to capitalize ‘W’ in describing the white community. Unlike the decision to capitalize ‘B,’ there’s been less newsroom consensus on this. Some use “W,” some use “w.” What are your thoughts on this?
The case for capitalizing the “B” in Black is a separate discussion from capitalizing the “w” in white. The mistake some news organizations or arbiters of this issue made was connecting the two and suggesting that the decisions for the “B” and “w” were binary, meaning they were directly related to each other. There are two separate discussions to be had.
The case for the capital “B” is focused on affirming a group of citizens of the world. African descendants living in America often have no defined ethnic lineage to a specific country or countries. Like the many African Americans who may have no known genetic link to a particular country due to the history of slavery, the capital “B” serves as an inclusive identity that notes a shared experience, race and ethnicity. Conversely, a known heritage is a more common reality for many white people, Asians, Hispanics and Latinos. As they may be more likely to know their country of origin, if relevant to a story, the media would likely publish that cultural or ethnic background. It is for those reasons, albeit not limited to, that the case for capitalizing the “B” in Black was made.
Capitalizing the “w” in white is often associated with and/or promoted by the white supremacy movement. In addition, if there are extensive published case(s) made for capitalizing the “w,” or a movement to do so by journalists and a particular community, then more debate on that issue is warranted. As journalists, we are trained to think critically and now more than ever we must. Language is reflective of the sign of the times. We should be open to amend newsgathering based on cultural norms and descriptors as society changes and evolves. For now, capitalizing the “B” in Black was not only fitting but long overdue.
What’s next in terms of burning issues on style and journalistic coverage that should be tackled?
Newsroom diversity and staffing should be addressed by news operations with working plans to start immediately during the summer of 2020. Every newsroom should create objectives to review staffing makeup and subsequently coverage. Style, sources and content are a part of the equation for further review, but managers should first review staffing and consider who is doing the reporting, editing and decision-making, and discuss how inclusive the newsroom may grow across ethnic, generational, sex-orientation and gender perspectives, to name some. Consideration of existing diversity data and local demographics is key. There are lessons to be learned from McKinsey’s diversity research.
For a deeper dive: McKinsey’s “Shattering the Glass Screen” is inspired by The Press Forward’s efforts to study women and minorities’ progress in the media and entertainment industry.
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