‘Washington Post’ Style Guru: Enough With The ‘N-Word’

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Plunging into the debate about the use of the word “nigger” in general-interest newspapers, the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for copy desks, Don Podesta, is urging writers there to use some other reference than “the N-word.”

“We’ve used this euphemism in more than a dozen stories in the last month. It’s trivializing and almost cutesy, as in ‘Johnny said the f-word in school today, Mom,'” Podesta wrote in a memo to staffers last week. The memo was first published in Richard Prince’s “Journal-isms” online column on the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education Web site.

Podesta wrote that it would be better for Post reporters to “take a few more words and say something like ‘a well-known racial epithet.'”

In a telephone interview Monday afternoon, Podesta said the issue came up first as an aside during a conversation with an African American colleague.

“She said, ‘You know, I’m really sick of this term, it’s really trivializing and childish … and we should find something more adult” when referencing the word, Podesta said.

Other African American journalists told Podesta they found the word “annoying,” a few suggested simply running the word, at least on first reference.

“The word is so freighted with meaning, it’s like, wink-wink, we’re saying the word, and we’re not saying it,” Podesta said.

Podesta noted in his memo that the newspaper has printed the actual word 1,254 times since 1977, “mostly in the titles of plays and books, but also in news stories about racial harassment.”

Last June the black-owned and -oriented Chicago Defender stirred some controversy with a story about the African American community’s view of the word that carried the word in a front-page headline.

“Black America, isn’t it about time we made up our mind about the word nigger?” the headline read.

“If we (at the Defender) can’t raise the issue, then who can?” the paper’s executive editor, Roland Martin, said at the time.

At the Post, Podesta’s memo also urged staffers to “be careful about” other terms, including “anti-immigrant,” and “jihad” and “jihadist.”

Podesta said the paper has been using “anti-immigrant” as short-hand for those opposed to increased immigration or certain immigration policies or proposals.

“It has racist connotations that might not apply in many cases,” Podesta wrote. “Someone can be opposed to more open or increased immigration or to illegal immigration without being against people who have immigrated into the country legally. Better to use a few more words in the interest of precision, such as ‘groups seeking to curb immigration.'”

Similarly, the Post’s style book already warns that “jihad” and “jihadist” can have “more nuanced” meanings for Muslims than the common Western idea that it means a war against unbelievers.

“Extremist and terrorists groups have adopted this term to justify their activities,” he wrote. “We should avoid using it unless it’s in a direct quote or in the name of an organization, publication, etc.”

Podesta said he wrote about those terms because the foreign desk complained that other departments of the newspaper were applying that standard as rigorously as it was. Since the memo appeared Wednesday, there have been a half-dozen references to “jihad” or “jihadist” that are all in quotes or part of a name, he said.

There have been no references to the racist term for African Americans, he added.

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