Thursday, April 29, 2010

Springfield | On 'flexibility' vs. 'colored youth'

A weekly opinion column in the Springfield News-Leader illustrates the pitfalls when Gannett newspapers rely more on reader-submitted articles that get scant attention from editors.

Now, let me say right away that I think papers have gotten too bland in recent years, as publishers worried about losing readers over controversial content. Opinion pages, especially, deserve to be open to many views, and can't fall victim to the political correctness police.

But I'm not convinced that community member Joe Snider's "Patriot's Pen" column in Monday's print paper got much editing beyond a perfunctory spell-check. And I don't say that merely because of his casual use of "colored youth" to describe black teenagers in his op-ed about whether white Americans owe slave descendants an apology.

Read the full column, and you'll see some sloppy, slap-dash writing -- evidence of an author so amateur, you wonder why he appears on the pages of a serious daily paper.

Editor: terms 'in flux'
Yet, it was the "colored" word that galvanized some readers, as well as a journalism professor at nearby Missouri State University. Stranger still, was the unsigned response by one of the paper's editors:

"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."

In one of 145 comments posted on the story, reader Acline was aghast: "Editing? Are you guys asleep at the switch? Are you really this tone deaf? Do you not have an AP Stylebook? 'Colored' is offensive. You can edit that out without harming the meaning of this amateur punditry."

Prof: 'failure to edit'
Associate journalism professor Andrew Cline's response was more detailed. "I have been arguing somewhat regularly that the News-Leader’s failure to edit its amateur pundits and teach them the basics of opinion journalism has created a toxic opinion section that is harmful to our civic discourse,'' Cline wrote on his Rhetorica blog. "I stand by that criticism. It’s not hard to do."

Citing the Associated Press Stylebook, and the Society of Professional Journalists's guide, Cline said, "the use of colored is most certainly not in 'flux.'"

His conclusion: If the News-Leader is going to give readers columns with titles and mug shots, "then journalistic ethics demands" that the opinion page editor, or someone else on staff, "edit these columns and attempt to teach these pundits how to be opinion journalists."

Earlier: N.J. papers scolded for letting hockey team cover itself

Now, it's your turn: How much leeway should Gannett offer to community readers writing for newspapers? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.

[Image: today's paper, Newseum]


  1. Jim,

    I don't care what term you use - it will offend someone.

    As someone who once lived in Spfld - and someone who is again a member of the south - this is common terminology. It doesn't make it right - it is factual that it is common terminology especially in the 40+ categories.

    Sometimes we need to look past a single word in a piece and focus on the author's intent.

    I agree with the author - and so do many Americans. This is the op-ed page right? Why the outcry - that's the whole point of the editorial page, if I remember correctly.

    Much ado about nothing...

  2. I guess, Jim, your editor was off today too! "...about whether white Americans own slave descendants an apology."

    Should have been "owe" an apology -- correct? Every editor needs an editor.

    Readers hear (here) you're not one to apologize too often if ever.

  3. I live in Springfield and am a daily and weekend subscriber to the News-Leader and have been for almost 50 years.

    My wife and I read the paper in the morning while we have our coffee. We comment on the stories that attract our attention.

    Joe Snider, writing from the Patriot's Pen, offended us as we read his column but we attributed his lack of sensitivity in referring to "Colored youth of America" as indicative of his lack of journalistic integrity.

    But, for the SN-L editor to imply that it is ok to use those terms-- to us is incomprehensible.

    And that reflects poorly on the editor, the SN-L and Gannett.

    BTW, regarding USA Today content in the SN-L: If I wanted to read USA Today, I'd buy USA Today.

  4. I would love for the editors of this newspaper to tell us the last time the term "colored youth" appeared either on its editorial page or the news pages. It's likely to have been 50 years ago. What other terms will they allow to be used that they will claim are suddenly "in flux?" Terms for handicapped people, gays, Asians, Mexicans, Jewish people? There are some who haven't accepted the correct terms for these people but instead of educating readers as to why they shouldn't be used, they give these bigots as unfettered forum for their foolish and hurtful slurs. Pitiful. Shameful. Unprofessional. Heads should roll over this. Gannett and the newspaper should explain to readers why the words appeared in the paper but this company is not known for its accountability and responsiveness to its readers.

  5. Here's a question....

    If 'colored' is offensive, why isn't 'African-American'?

    Colored can only be offensive because the word denotes race and therefore is considered to be denigrating to the people.

    Why isn't African-American also offensive? It too denotes race (I've never known any Caucasian to be mistaken as African-American) and should be denigrating a people as such, right?

    I have never understood this whole race thing. I am white. So what? You might be black, or brown or any other shade what?

    This author's point was that we should be able to historically reference racism as a horrible act and then move on from there. He then gave practical example of a black man perpetuating his own races' demise.

    Where in this article does the author violate any journalistic integrity?

    Now - you want to talk about journalistic integrity? How about that pesky little term 'tea-baggers'?

  6. If "colored" is OK, why not wheelchair bound, and deaf and dumb?

    Because as a society we're supposed to have advanced a bit over the past half century.

    As for tea-baggers, they could be more rightly called pawns of the RNC, regardless of the formal political affiliation of individuals.

    If 40 percent of people in the area are still referring to coloreds, well, I'm astounded.

  7. Colored is not a race. It's a offensive hate term used to denote a group of people simply by the color of their skin. The Associated Press, which sets the ethical standards for journalists, says colored should not be used in any instance just as retard and faggot aren't to be used. My apologies for using those terms and take them out if you want, Jim. They are offensive terms to certain segments of people as well as most people with half a brain. Wise up, will you? Quit making excuses like the newspaper people are.

  8. A reader sent the following to me in an e-mail, and asked me to post it as a comment:

    As the person who wrote the letter to the editor complaining about the use of the word "colored," I was doubly offended by the editor's note contending that "colored" is a term in flux.

    Like Andy Cline, I, too, am a journalism professor at Missouri State University. One of the classes I teach is Opinion Writing. I can assure you that in 15 years of teaching at Missouri State, not once has a student written or uttered the word "colored" in my class. Even they know better than that.

    I always include a segment on avoiding offensive language in my Opinion Writing class.

    It appears I have a new example to use when I teach the class again next fall.

  9. @buddhalite: can you draw any logical connection between the pesky little term "teabaggers" and lynchings?

  10. @ 9:17 - Well, I doubt that I can draw a connection other than both terms draw a negative connotation toward a group of people. The only dis-association is that one group drew together by choice - the others were born into it.

    My whole point with the comment was to illustrate the bias we have in journalism today. You can't offend African-Americans - but you can refer to a group of conservatives with a sexual act and state it on the pages of newspapers, all over television and the internet.

    I am deeply concerned about our profession. Whatever happened to objectivity? Colored is just as bad as tea-bagger - but in my newsroom - you won't hear 'colored'.

    I would agree that SPFLD screwed up on that one. That phrase should have been edited.

    FWIW - when speaking racially, I agree with the editor - the term we should use is in flux. In my few short years on this planet the preferred term has changed at least 4 times. What are you to do?

    Do we really think the author was trying to illustrate his racism? Do we think people using the term 'teabagger' are trying to illustrate their own personal bias against the movement?

    Sure do...

  11. I’m a Gannett editorial page editor, and I have several local columnists. They are subject to the same rules that apply to everyone who writes for the Opinion page. The problem with Joe Snider’s piece is that it wasn’t edited. That is just sloppy work. It would have been easy to substitute “black” for “colored.” Of course, the rest of the writing in the column needed editing, too.
    I have no problem with Snider’s message, once I figured out what it was. From a communication standpoint, the problem with offensive language – “colored” is considered offensive per AP style – is that readers will focus on the offense instead of the message.
    Editing mistakes happen all the time. I don’t want to hear about one word being wrong or misspelled – sorry, that stuff happens. But there is no excuse for the lack of editing of this piece. If you are going to run local columnists, you have to work with them. Clearly, they want to be part of the journalistic process and are willing to do the work and put themselves out there like the rest of us. We should respect that and help them do the best work they can do, just as we work with our fellow journalists at the newspaper.
    I edit my local columnists carefully. When I get the occasional really bad piece, I send it back with suggestions. Rarely, I will refuse to run something, but I always explain why. In Snider’s case, I would have fixed the problems and put it in the newspaper. We owe it to our readers and to our local writers to do that.

  12. I have no problem with the language of the original column. The language people use reveals their thoughts and psyche -- and sometimes you just have to let people dig their own hole.

    My problem is with the editor who tried to defend the language, and dropped the newspaper into the hole, as well. Now THAT is some out-of-date thinking and the collective wisdom of the newsroom should have stopped him.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

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