A “Japanese” man, a “white” woman, an “Irish Catholic” network executive — common descriptors, perhaps, in everyday talk. But put identifiers like these in a newspaper story and you are playing with fire.
For decades, The Times has had clear policies warning reporters and editors to be careful about using ethnic, racial and religious labels. Only when “pertinent,” its stylebook says.
Making the judgment call of what is pertinent, though, is easier said than done. Even when the judgment call can be justified, errors of execution can provoke strong responses from readers, as two recent examples illustrate.
In a Jan. 26 profile of Stephen B. Burke, the new chief executive of NBC Universal, Tim Arango and Bill Carter wrote: “Mr. Burke, who is Irish Catholic, attended Colgate University, then applied to Harvard Divinity School, but ultimately chose Harvard Business School.”
Raymond G. McGuire, a reader in New York City, found “Irish Catholic” to be a “jarring” reference. “I reread the sentence several times, then reread the article trying to figure out why the authors thought it relevant that Mr. Burke ‘is Irish Catholic,’ ” he said in an e-mail message to me. “Did they think it unusual for an Irish Catholic to attend Colgate University, to apply to Harvard Divinity School or to attend Harvard Business School; or, perhaps to run a major television network?”
Mr. McGuire recalled growing up in New York City from the 1940s to 1960s, “when its Catholic residents universally understood that the N.Y. Times was vaguely hostile to institutionalized Catholicism and deployed reporters and columnists who had little understanding of the daily lives of the city’s Catholic residents, or of the rich culture Catholics of Irish ancestry enjoyed during those years. I thought those days were past.”
Clearly, this use of an ethnic/religious label provoked strong feelings based on a long history of strong feelings — exactly the kind of reaction that The Times’s policy is designed to forestall. What went wrong here?
The story’s editor, Bruce Headlam, who heads The Times’s media desk, told me that the original wording in the offending paragraph was somewhat different: “Mr. Burke, who is Irish Catholic, attended Colgate University, and later spent time on a kibbutz in Israel [my italics]. After college he was accepted to Harvard Divinity School, but ultimately chose Harvard Business School.”
In this version, Mr. Headlam told me, “you get a sense of Mr. Burke as someone with a wide field of interests — an Irish Catholic who spent time on a kibbutz, and a potential divinity student who instead went to business school.”
The idea was to create a detailed portrait of someone with diverse interests and capacities. The problem was, alas, that Mr. Headlam had to shrink the story to fit in the paper — so he edited out the kibbutz and, with it, the justification for including “Irish Catholic.”
“With that gone, the reference to his upbringing and religion no longer seemed relevant, and I should have edited out that, as well,” Mr. Headlam said. “But the attempt by the writers was to illuminate the subject, not to dismiss him based on a cliché.”
In another recent example, published on Feb. 3, the reporter Anemona Hartocollis pulled together an interesting overview of abortion in New York City, where two out of every five pregnancies are terminated. The story said that health experts tie this rate to “factors like race and income.”
The article appeared online first and included quotes from three young women at an abortion clinic in Greenwich Village. One of the women was identified as white. The other two, who were not identified by race, were described in a way that made them seem pretty casual about getting pregnant, in contrast to the white woman, who said she was “against abortion” and became pregnant only after her doctor told her she was infertile.
Love Karima Foy, a reader in Wheatley Heights, N.Y., protested that the racial labeling in the story created “the inference” that the other two women were most likely from minority groups.
“The reporter also shares that the white woman got pregnant without fault, because her doctor told her she was ‘infertile,’ ” Ms. Foy wrote. “The other two women are described as being careless in their personal behavior and choices. Maybe this is why the reporter chose not to reveal either woman’s race, for fear of confirming stereotypes. Either way, she is not subtle in her attempt to distinguish the white woman from the other two. I find this type of writing both sanctimonious and disgusting. Either print the race of all or print the race of none.”
In this case, the original intent — again — was to use demographic labels because they were deemed relevant. As originally written, the article identified all three women by race because it was broadly addressing the role of race and other demographics in New York City’s abortion rate.
But Wendell Jamieson, deputy metro editor, had misgivings about using the racial labels. “The bar for putting race in is very high,” said Mr. Jamieson, who was overseeing the posting of Metro stories online that day. “It has to be totally relevant to the point of the story.”
Mr. Jamieson instructed the copy desk to remove the labels, and that was done — except that the desk missed the one “white” reference. That label remained in the article and lingered there through the afternoon, long enough for Ms. Foy to see it. Only when a fresh editor, Andy Parsons, reread the story in preparing for print publication did someone notice the inconsistency and take it out. The final version was stripped bare of all racial labels.
But the damage was done, readers were offended, Times motives were impugned, and the beat goes on. As these examples show, properly using racial, ethnic and religious labels is much harder than it looks.
Eric Freedman, a journalism professor at Michigan State University, complained to me last fall about the gratuitous use of the label “Japanese” as it was applied to someone mentioned in a Sunday Magazine column. So I asked him last week what he thought of the labeling decisions that were made in the two cases above.
In both, he said, using the racial and ethnic/religious labels was appropriate in their original forms. In the profile of Mr. Burke, the kibbutz reference created a reasonable basis for using the Irish Catholic label. In the abortion story, he added, the role of race made it appropriate to mention the race of all the women.
I think he’s right: with the proper couching of the material, it probably would have been O.K. to use the potentially fire-starting labels in these stories. But doing so would have required extreme care. In the end, errors of inattention in editing left some readers unhappy and gave new breath to old stereotypes.