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Sunday, March 30, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inside The Times

Times Policy Against Use Of Racial Slur Brings Strong Reader Response

Times Executive Editor

In responses ranging from ugly to poetic, dozens of readers have reacted to The Times' policy against using racial slurs in news stories.

I explained the policy last week in conjunction with a powerful story about racism and sexism on the Seattle waterfront. As originally written, the story included several uses of a racial slur, each in the context of quotes acknowledged or alleged.

Through the editing process, the slur was deleted and described instead as "the worst thing you can call an African American." Most of the readers who responded applauded that change.

A Bothell reader said she was delighted by the decision. "That `wickedly powerful word' should never be seen or heard again. It should be stricken from our vocabulary so my daughter never uses it."

A retired longshoreman wrote, "Racist attitudes are widespread in our society. An example is the serious discussion which took place in The Seattle Times editorial staff on the question of excluding racist and sexist terms in the article . . . That it took extensive deliberation to finally decide that `offensive racial, ethnic or sexist terms' should be excluded is itself an indication of lingering racist and sexist attitudes even among those seeking to overcome."

Another retired waterfront worker wrote, "I think you are right about the printing of racial slurs. The effect is not to shock the reader, but rather to validate the term for general use."

A caller said, "By not including the word you are, in fact, letting the totality of the story be the most dominating point - not the word itself. I don't think it's capitulation, I think it is respect. White people don't need to hear the word because white people know exactly what it is. And by hearing the totality of the story they, in fact any whites who are using it, may hopefully feel and see the sting of the whole story and that the word perhaps is reflective of the attitudes."

Another caller said, "I'm Hispanic myself, and I never use that slur and I hate seeing it in the news. I hate seeing it anywhere. I think it's a terrible put-down."

An e-mail message said, "When the comment is universally considered derogatory, characterizing it without including the actual word seems very appropriate, particularly when there are fringe elements who would publicly use such comments simply to perpetuate their use and carry out their agendas."

Another e-mail message said, "We hear enough of this junk on the streets or even on radio and television, and I personally don't need to hear them or read them again to understand their power and degrading influence . . . As a resident of the South for 10 years, I heard, read and saw enough of the damage and pain caused by `mere words.' We don't need to repeat this error in the Pacific Northwest, even for the sake of `realism' or `journalistic integrity.' "

Not everyone agreed

On the other hand, one Seattle reader felt it was "really kind of stupid" not to use the slur "when the very point of the article is to demonstrate, or emphasize, the use of the word. By not using the actual word, you obviously weaken its presumed impact and in some cases even cause doubt in the mind of the reader about the validity of the claimed use.

"The real problem, of course, is that The Times has come to believe it is something that it is not - uniquely blessed with wisdom and morality," he concluded.

A reader in Des Moines wrote, "The Times' job is to report the news, regardless of whether it upsets the tender sensitivities of the politically correct. It's long past due that you left your '60s' guilty white liberalism behind. Get over it."

Another Seattle reader argued, "You would not have the guts to write a story condemning minorities . . . I can't believe you - outstanding and courageous writer - have spent 10,000 words apologizing about the danger of using just one word."

One of the most thoughtful criticisms of our decision came from a Seattle reader. He wrote:

"I stood on my porch last evening and watched the comet Hale-Bopp streak across the evening sky to my right. At the same time, to my left, a lunar eclipse was under way, and watching night's black wing settle slowly over the moon, I was struck by the strangeness of our times.

"I couldn't tell you about this experience without the words to relay my thoughts. Words create reality. They teach. They warn. They express both degrees of disgrace and beauty, but you know all of this.

"You take away words, and reality dies. You could actually see it vanish by reading what The Times' (editors) did to Stanley Holmes' story on the longshoremen's union. After reading it I was left thinking: `Well heck, these longshoremen ain't so bad. So Holmes' he-said, she-said, they-said piece implies there are a few bad eggs on the dock. Hey! The world is full of 'em.'

"But The Times knows better. It knows that Seattle's docks are rife with nepotism, favoritism and hooliganism . . . ."

Concluding the story was sanitized, the reader wrote, "I think both ethically and morally The Times' experimentation in social sensitivity has gone astray. . . . I'm positive rational people everywhere would want, no, expect, The Times to place any foul-mouthed, bigoted mindset under the media's public magnifying lens; and then fully expose the racist ugliness for what it is. Cowardice creates neither acceptance nor good citizenry."

Yet another Seattle reader had mixed feelings, even though he started by saying we were "Absolutely, unequivocally, without any doubt or qualification, dead wrong!" He said that sanitizing the story weakened it and "tells me you don't understand that all white people need to feel uneasy."

"Anyone who didn't know about the racism and sexism on the docks and at the Port hasn't been paying attention and needs to be shocked into awareness," he wrote.

But, in the end, he added, ". . . I am willing to concede that I am wrong on the subject of using the racial slur if African Americans tell you that your use of the word is painful to them regardless of its context or the story being told and your policy is based on that consideration. I would never presume to speak for African Americans. I know that whites need to wake up. But I would never condone adding to African Americans' racial pain in the name of solving our problem of institutionalized racism."

That is pretty much the attitude behind our policy on using racial slurs, as well as profanities or words that strike at the core of some people's religious beliefs. As I wrote last week, what matters is how strongly some readers are affected by the language we use.

Where to draw the line

We took racial sensitivity a step too far last week in previewing the baseball season.

For several years, our policy has been to respect Native-American complaints that the nicknames and mascots of some sports teams are offensive. We use the names where necessary in stories, but avoid them in headlines. And we avoid discretionary uses of the mascot images.

Last week we used small photos of baseball-team hats as icons or keys to content. But the Cleveland Indians' hat was minus its logo, a caricature of an Indian chief that is widely regarded as demeaning by Native Americans.

Using readily available computer technology, the offensive logo was electronically erased from a photo of the Cleveland hat. As Alex MacLeod, Times managing editor, said in a note to the staff: "That's something we're not supposed to do. The integrity of each photo is critical. You can't compromise one without raising a question about all. The photo manipulation was well intentioned, but the result was a visual lie."

Mike Stanton, general news editor, commented: "If we're going to be concerned about sensitivity, we can only do it through inclusion or exclusion of things that are optional. We can't change the objective reality."

In this case, the appropriate solution would have been choosing something other than the offending hat to identify the Cleveland content.

An important initiative

The Times will be adding two reporting positions to help us construct a newsroom-wide project team to focus on stories that intersect with race and class.

The action follows the departure of Aly Colon, diversity reporter/coach, who left The Times in January to teach at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. A task force examined how to fill the void and recommended three things: that we refocus from "diversity" to race and class, that we do it with a project team similar to those devoted to personal technology, aerospace and education and that we commit more reporting time to the topics.

So, in addition to replacing Aly, we'll add the two new reporters.

The team's mission will be to discover, explore and explain significant stories about race and class in our region. I'll tell you more about the effort as the team forms.

Inside The Times appears each Sunday. If you have a comment about news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 464-3310, or send e-mail to: mfan-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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