By Caroline Meintzer
On Oct. 7, 2013, The Washington Post ran an article in their printed newspaper that included an editorial by Dana Milbank. Milbank’s editorial called out the Washington Redskins’ team name for being racist, and he further illustrated his point by asking people to compare the Redskins name to other racial epithets. In print, he wrote:
To see whether it’s right to use ‘Redskins’ as a mascot, NFL owners gathering in Georgetown on Tuesday for their fall meeting should substitute some other common racial epithets for Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Jews and see how they would sound. That would be enough to send anybody to the shotgun formation.
The online version, however, ran a bit differently:
“To see whether it’s right to use ‘Redskins’ as a mascot, NFL owners gathering in Georgetown on Tuesday for their fall meeting should substitute some other common racial epithets and see how they would sound: The Washington Wetbacks? The Houston Hymies? The Chicago Chinks? Or perhaps the New York Niggers? That would be enough to send anybody to the shotgun formation.”
What’s your problem?
Do the same ethical standards apply to the print and online versions of The Washington Post (or any newspaper for that matter)?
Why not follow the rules?
Rules and practices seem hazy regarding the consistency between online and printed journalism. Many media organizations in their practices have drawn a difference between the two, and often that decision seems to be made based on getting more web clicks than out of actual ethical decision-making.
Despite actual practices, many organization and journalists have spoken in promotion of a consistency across platforms for journalism. They say what is justified and unjustified in print should find the same rules online. The Poynter Institute has upheld through various articles and conferences that journalistic principles should be constant across the board. In other words, journalists are journalists no matter what they’re writing for.
These guidelines haven’t been the case for major news organizations, though. In the Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, Chris Roberts’s article, “Fit to post but not fit to print,” explains an inconsistency within the New York Times’ promise, “All the news fit to print.” In 2012, the Times published a photo online of a dying diplomat that it wouldn’t publish in the paper, which goes against the very grain of the promise to keep all news within the ethical margins applied to their print paper. They didn’t even offer a warning online about the graphic photo.
So, the rules generally point to holding the same ethical principles across the board; however, however most media outlets don’t seem to follow them.
Who wins, who loses?
By publishing different versions of the story on different mediums, readers are being impacted in different ways. For someone reading the print version, perhaps he or she is winning by not reading a few obscene words at the breakfast table. But then again, maybe he’s losing because the story’s point against the NFL team name, the Redskins, isn’t driven home as strongly without the obscene words. The newspaper, The Washington Post, loses because it lacks consistency across all of its media platforms. It seems to be generalizing its paper and web readers by saying what is and isn’t appropriate for them. It could be argued that it’s stereotyping readers on the web to want obscenity and something extreme and that those reading print are conservative and might have a panic attack about reading an offensive term in the paper.
The Washington Post wins a small battle by not offending readers with its print version of the article, but they lose a larger one by stereotyping their readers and fracturing their ethical standards along lines of different mediums.
What’s it worth?
The idea behind changing the article for print is to minimize harm, one of the major tenants of the SPJ codes. By keeping the print article rather tame, the Post is trying to uphold values of compassion and good taste. However, do those values of compassion change when the readership changes? Is that value worth the same online as it is in print?
For me, this is where I make my case. I think those values should be consistent across the board. Whatever we stand for, whether it’s compassion to the readers by avoiding derogatory terms, or if it’s truth and openness, regardless of the potential ability to offend, we must stand for it on every branch of our organization.
I believe The Washington Post should have the same article in print and online because ethics should be consistent, or else they verge on becoming simple moralizing.
Furthermore, I believe that the chosen version of the article shouldn’t be the safe one that the Post used for print. In fact, I would have gone with the racier version. I know it goes against normal ethical standards for what’s printed. The AP style guide specifically states to avoid using derogatory terms except for in quotes and when pertinent to the story.
The whole point of the editorial, though, is to demonstrate the offensive of the team’s name. When you read the edited version of the article, the author’s examples barely resonate. You practically skip past his line to “substitute some other common racial epithets for Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Jews” without a second thought. The real article hits you smack in the face. You can’t help but stop and consider his point. In its sanitized version, there isn’t any power, and it defeats the purpose of the article.
So I’d publish it the way it was originally written. I’m sure I would certainly garner a lot of flak, but I believe the rules of ethical journalism are meant to sometimes be broken (higher Kohlberg level, perhaps?). In order for this writer to critique an offensive NFL team name, he had to show its name in the context of other offensive words. I believe people are mature enough to be able to handle it, whether they’re reading it online or in print.
But at the very least, I’ll add an offensive language warning at the top of the editorial. That way, the people can decide it for themselves if they want to read it.