There are certain rules that journalists have to follow that oftentimes fall at odds with the general public. For instance, I see a lot of frustration when headlines use the word “alleged” for crimes that most people feel are obvious. However, journalists must use the word until a crime is proven in a court of law. The rules of journalism are strict and it largely revolves around the possibility of being sued and facing monetary repercussions. That’s one reason there’s so much attention placed to a news outlet’s stylebook that dictates rules for how it addresses certain topics (as well as what phrases or words they capitalize, etc.).
But in this age of normalized nationalism where the president refers to Black and brown nations as “shithole countries” and congressmen openly support white supremacy, it’s time that mainstream publications definitively add another word to their stylebooks: racist.
Comb through any popular publication and you’ll see something between reluctance to a downright refusal to call someone racist. Even actions fall under this passivity. Just this morning, NBC reportedly sent out a memo discouraging it staff from calling Iowa Rep. Steve King’s remarks – asking why the term “white supremacist” was offensive – racist:
“Be careful to avoid characterizing [King’s] remarks as racist. It is ok to attribute to others as in ‘what many are calling racist’ or something like that.”
While NBC quickly walked back its tone-deaf directive following an immediate backlash on social media, it was, of course, part of a larger trend of media mincing words to prevent appearing controversial or coming off as opinionated in straight news stories. It’s why so many news outlets are also reluctant to use the word “lie” to describe the many times Donald Trump, well, lies, throughout the course of a day. Instead, we get words like “falsehoods” or statements that he’s said something that’s “been disproved.”
When it comes to racism, the New York Times and the like would rather say “racially tinged” or “racially charged” instead of outright calling an action racist. Even when the racist action is undeniable, like with Steve King’s comments, every publication seems to fall short of calling the person behind said racist action a racist.
The problem with the word “racist” is that there’s always deniability on the part of the accused. Nobody calls him or herself a racist so there’s always the possibility of legal action coming towards an outlet that labels a person a such. But that’s a convenient argument. Part – if not most – of the problem comes from so many in the media wanting to appease white bases, fearing a backlash from a fraction of the populace who would be offended by even hinting at using the word “racist.”
The fact is, Donald Trump and his political ilk have pushed mainstream discussions of race so far right that the media trying to find a middle ground have consequently caused publications to likewise move in the same direction language-wise. It might have seemed unheard of years ago that the mainstream media would find itself in a position to have to call a sitting president an outright racist. Such an act would have been beyond the bounds of objective journalism. But that’s not the case anymore.
Donald Trump has called Mexicans rapists and thieves. He’s sided with white supremacists who murdered a woman in Charlottesville. He’s called for the death penalty for innocent Black people. He’s used the word “shithole” to describe African and Caribbean countries. He continues to disrespect every Black woman reporter who asks him a question. Donald Trump is a racist. And if we can’t call him one then what’s the point of having a journalistic institution that claims to report facts?
For some, the idea of a racist is subjective. However, it’s time for publications to empower their reporters with an apparatus to determine what constitutes fair ability to call someone or an act racist. The word “racist” needs to be in every stylebook across the country with clearly defined parameters and if someone meets those parameters then the word should be used. Donald Trump is a racist. Steve King is a racist. The men who marched in Charlottesville are racists. I’m glad that I write for a place that allows me to say that. It’s a disservice to the country that more journalists can’t do the same.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.