THE BLOG
10/29/2014 12:46 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

For the Journalist, Objectivity Changes When Coverage Includes Dictionary-Defined Racial Slur

The Washington Post via Getty Images

In the last few years, a major debate has gripped the journalism industry -- a debate over fairness, advocacy and objectivity. Can fairness and advocacy exist in the same news pages? Can objectivity survive in an age of partisanship and bias? How can media organizations navigate the boundaries between opinion and news?

These are difficult questions, especially in a 24-7 media environment that too often seems to reward the loudest and wealthiest, whether or not they happen to be honest or informed. Yet, there are some issues that do not fit so easily into a debate over objectivity and opinion -- issues in which the media itself is, by definition, an active participant in the story.

That idea, of course, runs counter to much of what students may be learning in journalism school, as journalism scholars are often taught to studiously avoid involving themselves in the stories they are covering. For the most part, that kind of separation serves journalists well -- it helps them accurately cover important stories rather than manufacture less important ones.

However, when it comes to issues in which the coverage itself is a significant part of the story, then the principle at work must change. At that point, there is no such thing as "objectivity," meaning the question no longer is: am I being objective? The question in these rare cases becomes: which side am I on?

This, of course, is the underlying question involved in the Change the Mascot campaign to get the Washington football team to stop using a dictionary-defined racial slur as its name. In that campaign, we have asked journalists and news organizations to refrain from using the R-word in their coverage of the NFL. As we've argued, to use the word in that coverage is to promote it and legitimize it. In other words, using that word in news coverage is not an objective act. It is, unto itself, an act of advocacy and bias -- the kind that says this dictionary-defined slur is somehow a perfectly acceptable term to describe Native Americans.

Objectively speaking, this term most certainly is not an acceptable way to describe Native Americans. Here are some objective facts for you to consider:

Because of this, major media organizations and individual journalists have in the last year decided to stop using the term in their football coverage. These include the Washington Post's editorial board, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Charlotte Observer and National Public Radio. It also includes NFL broadcasters like Phil Simms among others.

As we've learned so often throughout history, journalism can be a dangerous business -- and that goes for those far away from the frontlines of a war. In the sports media world, the recent suspension of Bill Simmons has proven that doing so much as questioning the NFL can get even the most famous journalists punished.

The same holds true for the fight over the R-word. In declaring they will not help Washington team owner Dan Snyder profit off this slur, these journalists and news organizations that have stopped using the R-word are no doubt risking their access to the very professional football league they are employed to cover. Indeed, Mr. Snyder has made it clear that there he will offer lucrative rewards for those who help him continue to promote and market his preferred slur. He has also hired an army of political advisers, lobbyists and professional public relations operatives to try to intimidate opponents of his slur into submission.

Mr. Snyder's intimidation campaign has certainly made an impact -- in Pennsylvania, for instance, it has helped inspire a hideous episode of bullying. A few hundred miles to the east in suburban Philadelphia, students at Neshaminy High School, whose football team uses the R-word, decided to stop using the term in their school newspaper. Their move followed students from near our tribe in Central New York deciding to change the name of their football team from the R-word to something far less offensive.

Yet, unlike in Cooperstown, New York, the situation in Neshaminy prompted a backlash at precisely the same time Mr. Snyder was intensifying his campaign to continue using the R-word. That's right, a few months ago, the school board in Neshaminy attempted to force the students to print the slur, and suspended a faculty member who was advising the school newspaper. Worse, one school board member threatened to have the students at the newspaper arrested and prosecuted if they didn't print the slur.

This is but one extreme example, exemplifying the risks that come with rejecting stenography and instead pursuing journalism. Doing that, as the old saying goes, means "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable" -- and make no mistake about it: the comfortable like Mr. Snyder don't like to be afflicted with the truth about their preferred racial slurs.

In the campaign to continue promoting this slur, the NFL's two-pronged ploy with respect to journalists is as simple as it is cynical.

The first thing they argue is that because a majority of Americans in polls say they have no problem with the NFL marketing this slur, then that means its perfectly acceptable for media organizations to continue to promote it. The problem with that argument -- beyond the fact that polls show a sizable number of Americans feel the opposite -- is its fundamentally undemocratic assumptions -- specifically, its assumptions about minority rights in a democratic society. It assumes that if a bare majority of the population that isn't a target of a slur loves that slur, then the slur is acceptable -- targets of the slur be damned. It further assumes that the Fourth Estate somehow has a moral obligation to help the majority demonize the minority.

The second thing Washington team officials are essentially trying to do is convince the media world that this is a standard "he said, she said" issue -- and that somehow both the proponents and opponents of the name carry equal legitimacy. But no matter how often he claims calling me and my fellow Native Americans "redskins" is designed to honor us, every honest observer knows it's the opposite. We know this because nobody would seriously argue that calling me a "redskin" in casual conversation would be anything other than a deliberate insult to me, my family, my tribe and my heritage.

The way to know that there's no equally legitimate "side" to this debate is to consider how absurd it is to extend the assumption to other questions. Should news organizations use racial slurs against African Americans in news coverage because a few white supremacists say that's necessary? Should reporters give Nazis equal time in coverage of the Jewish community? The answer is: of course not. Which is exactly the same answer to the question of whether proponents of racial slurs against Native Americans shouldn't be portrayed as equally legitimate as those who oppose those slurs.

Objectivity is a valuable principle worth protecting in journalism -- it means covering issues without fear or favor, and in a way that doesn't kowtow to the wealthy and powerful, simply because of their wealth and power. But in the rare cases where objectivity is not possible -- where news organizations are by default taking a stand on one side of the issue or the other -- objectivity should not be employed as a defense mechanism and a cop out. It should not be used as an excuse to simply promote the preferred slur of a wealthy and powerful billionaire team owner, just because that wealthy and powerful billionaire says it is OK. That is not objectivity and it isn't journalism -- that is more accurately described as royal court stenography or fealty.

True objectivity and journalism, by contrast, involves recognizing that using this racial slur in news coverage is, unto itself, an act of opinion and advocacy on behalf of those who wish to denigrate Native Americans. As journalists, that means paeans to objectivity do not absolve you from facing that question I first mentioned: which side are you on? I hope your answer is the one that honors the most basic ideals of civility, equality and mutual respect.