OK, news fans. It’s time to put you in the editor’s seat and make some of the sometimes ticklish and hard decisions that come with publishing the equivalent of a book every day.
I’ll call this “You Make the Call” and capitalize it to make it more formal and important. Should I? You be the judge.
But we won’t start with anything so paltry as capitalizing common nouns. Let’s get something with teeth:
The scenario: You are a sports editor on shift Thursday night. The Associated Press moves an article that says half the U.S. Senate wants the NFL commissioner to change the name of the Washington football team because it’s a racist slur.
The executive editor recently announced the Missourian would no longer use the team's name in stories. But the AP piece is about the name. Taking it out meets the policy, but clarity suffers for any reader who doesn’t immediately know the name.
What do you do?
The outcome: The article published without the team name. It included a link to a Dear Reader letter that discussed the policy. A photo of the team mascot on a player’s helmet ran in the online edition. The print edition had a box that described the policy. There was no photo.
Second thoughts: The values at stake are pretty clear. Perpetuating racial and slurs is bad, but readers generally don’t like guessing games. The issue comes up periodically in deciding when it’s OK to use the N- word. In fact, it’s the subject of another sports controversy: The NFL this spring discussed penalizing players during games for saying “nigger” on the field.
Note that I used the whole word, just as I would have referred to the Washington Redskins — not in describing the team in general or a game, but when the controversy is over the word itself.
I find both words to be offensive. Others may not. That’s not the point: The context is. Using the R- word casually serves no good purpose. Using it to engender debate and understanding does.
Clarity trumps sensitivity in this case. But I can (and will) be second-guessed, just as I have questioned the decision of editors in the heat of moving a bucketful of copy on a busy Thursday night.
You make the call. What would you do?
But first, dear reader, a ruling from the judges committee (me): You can’t change the policy if you don’t like it.
That would be cheating.
Remember, you’re the editor in charge for the night, meaning you have to make thousands of news judgments, most without thinking about them for any significant amount of time. Overriding a policy is one of those decisions, but changing policy isn’t a deadline call.