After Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) questioned why “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” were considered negative terms, NBC’s standards department emailed the network’s reporters, urging them to avoid characterizing King’s remarks as “racist.”
NBC later revised its guidance. But the initial directive indicates a larger hesitance to directly call out racism. News organizations typically reach for euphemisms ― often opting for “racially charged,” “racially tinged” or “derogatory” — which eliminate the dehumanizing impetus behind such comments, giving the false impression that racism is a fringe belief and not deeply embedded in every aspect of American life.
We asked reporters to tell us about times they’ve been asked or ordered to use a euphemism instead of “racist” or “racism” in their stories. Four such stories have been published below. The stories have been edited for clarity and to maintain the anonymity of the reporters who submitted them.
During the controversy on Rachel Lindsay’s season of “The Bachelorette,” when contestant Lee was found to have racist tweets, my publication wouldn’t let me say “racist.” It was “racially charged” or “racially sensitive,” etc. I would write “racist,” and then my editor would change it during the line editing process. The directive came from higher up than my direct editors, but I don’t know how high.
As a general rule, this publication takes the teeth out of anything you write because they’re so worried about offending anyone — literally anyone. So it doesn’t matter if you’re writing about men’s rights activists or feminism or racism. They like to make it more palatable.
I was at a media organization that wouldn’t allow me to use “racist” or “bigot” when referring to derogatory comments that Donald Trump made or to his character. Instead, we were told to use mundane euphemisms like “inappropriate” and “discriminatory statements” or descriptive phrases like “his comments caused a stir online” and “drew anger and pushback from people.”
Bullshit. In local broadcast television, it was seen as being radical, and they didn’t want reporters and producers to be that.
These matters always went back to my supervisor, who had the final say on content I produced. But there was never a direct answer on where this guidance was coming from ― only that we looked to what other organizations were doing. To do that, we’d conduct a basic Google search, and not many organizations use “racist” as is.
There was one instance where my editor removed the word “racist” altogether — even though she agreed I had used it properly. She said she did not want to get sued. The story was about a white man for whom the Ole Miss School of Journalism was named. He posted two pictures of two black women without their consent, essentially called them prostitutes and blamed them for crime and plummeting property values in the area.
This editor prided herself as being a de facto race expert and yet shied away from calling a spade a spade.
I was on an editorial board writing about the push to remove Confederate monuments and was told I could not use a Confederate-Nazi analogy because it would be offensive. So it was cut from a piece I wrote about why Confederate monuments needed to come down.
I had a ton of debates with my editors about why I wasn’t allowed to use the word “racist.” Most of the directive came from a direct editor. But the no-Nazi comparison came directly from the publisher and the editor-in-chief — who intervened in a way they never intervened on any other subject.