A style guide to avoid slurs

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 17/08/2016
A new Canadian style guide offers help on navigating the shoals of ethnically and racially diverse societies.
SHUMA RAHA reports


When I joined a newspaper more than two decades ago, one of the first things one was required to master was its “house style”. This ranged from anything as seemingly trivial as whether to put a stop after “Mr” (no stop) to the way words like “criticise” were spelt, ie (British or American spelling) to getting accustomed to writing “West Asia” rather than “Middle East”.

From time to time one heard that there was a stylebook lying around somewhere. But in that first year, I never came across it. Hence unwitting violations of the house style were frequent, as were sharp rebukes from one’s seniors. 

In time I came to appreciate that a house style is a fundamental part of how a media organisation presents its news. Consistency of spelling, usage,  capitalisation and so on is essential to the overall cast of credibility of news reports. You can’t, for example, write “northeast”, “north-east”, or “North-east” in different parts of the same paper - or web portal - and not expect the reader to notice and dismiss you as slipshod and silly.

Today, a house style is also code for the sensitivity or otherwise with which a media organisation reports hot button issues such as gender, race or religion. Do its reporters and editors yield to unconscionable stereotypes or do they respect the sensitivities of a community or group? Does their language reflect age-old biases or does it eschew terminology which may be offensive to a particular group of people? The answers to such questions could make all the difference to the way a publication is perceived and contributes to the current cultural climate. 

It is in this context that one must laud the efforts of New Canadian Media (NCM), a website dedicated to news and views of immigrants in Canada. Last month NCM came out with the Ethnic Media & Diversity Style Guide, a handbook for journalists who operate in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society.

“NCM’s goal is that this guide will serve as a source that helps contribute to the promotion of more accurate and inclusive reporting when referencing diverse communities in the media,” it says.

There are compelling reasons for having an Ethnic Media & Diversity Style Guide in a melting pot like Canada. According to the country’s 2011 National Household Survey, Canada’s immigrant population is as much as 20.6% of its total population. Its people come from 200 different ethnic origins and 13 of those ethnic groups each account for more than one  million people. Canada also has people belonging to diverse religious faiths: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Jews and so on.

The immense diversity of the Canadian population makes it necessary for the press to be particularly careful in their reporting so that they don’t come off looking racist, insensitive or plain ignorant. NCM’s Style Guide is a comprehensive manual that tells you how to avoid these pitfalls. And since most countries today are multi-cultural, multi-faith and multi-racial, journalists in the English-speaking world are likely to find this a useful resource.

The Guide suggests that a person should be identified by race, colour, national origin or immigration status only when it is “truly pertinent” to the story. Inclusive reporting also means that references to racial minorities “should not be confined to accounts of cultural events, racial tensions or crime”.

It warns against hyping up inflammatory statements at the expense of the main story. Furthermore, one must also be sure that a spokesman does indeed speak for a community or organisation, lest the radical views of one person be identified with the entire constituency.

The Style Guide also makes the important point that humour can never be an excuse for insulting language. “Humour was intended is no defense for a racial slur,” it says.

Again and again journalists are advised not to indulge in racial or religious stereotypes. The key question to ask oneself is: “Am I aware of the power of perceptions that I create with my reporting and whether I am avoiding further imposition of stereotypes?” In truth, the crux of responsible reportage in a diverse society is really no different from the crux of responsible reportage per se - you have to be fair, accurate and contextual.

In the section on “Tips for Reporting on Ethnic Communities”, the Style Guide cautions against identifying the actions of an individual with an entire ethnic group. Nor should one associate an ethnic community with a terrible event or trend, it says. The importance of this advice cannot be over-emphasised, given the rising tide of Islamophobia in the wake of a spate of Islamic State inspired terror attacks in the West.

Indeed, the media have a responsibility to make a distinction between individual action and the community to which he or she belongs in clear and unequivocal terms. More so because right wing nativists and xenophobes coming out of the woodwork in countries across Europe and north America are busy making precisely that false and noxious connection.

The Style Guide also contains a glossary of terms from various religions and an extremely useful A-Z of ethno-cultural words. The A-Z not only provides the meaning of these words but also clarifies what’s offensive and what’s not. For example, it tells you not to use racially fraught words like “Negro”, “Nigger”, “Paki” “Dark Continent” (Africa) and so on. There are notes on Burqa, Hijab and Niqaab and advice that “bindi” should be referred to as just that - and not as a dismissive “dot”. 

Archaic and derogatory words may only be used when they are part of a direct quote, says the Style Guide. However, “the relevance of these terms should be essential to the story, otherwise they should be avoided and left out.”

One does wonder, however, why the Style Guide confines itself to reporting on ethnicity and is silent on the vocabulary of choice in matters of gender diversity. After all, gender diversity is obviously an important issue in the Canadian body politic; on July 4 this year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marched in a gay pride parade in Toronto, making history as the first head of state to do so. Still, as the Guide states right at the outset, this is “work in progress”. Perhaps later editions will be amplified to include correct and inclusive styles of reporting on gender issues.

In the introduction to the Style Guide, Paul Knox, Chair, editorial advisory board, NCM, writes that the guide “pays particular attention to language that has the potential to be socially and culturally charged. It seeks to provide global context to help contributors choose the right words and avoid incorrect or insensitive terms.” 

The Style Guide does this admirably and hence could become a model for inclusive reporting for journalists everywhere. India could also do with a similar stylebook, one that would set out the correct terms for reporting on issues of caste, community, religion and gender.

Of course, the Indian media are usually extremely tactful when referencing matters of caste and community. (It is “Dalit”, and never “lower caste”; “minority” community rather than “Muslim”, and so on.)  But a detailed manual on how to make sure that no bias and religious and caste profiling filters through would be very welcome.

Perhaps the Press Council of India could take up the project?


Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached @ShumaRaha. 



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