No room for insensitivity in the newspaper

Friday, October 19, 2007 | 5:00 p.m. CDT; updated 4:43 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — I met Allison Ross at a “mentor-mentee” welcome function at the journalism school. She was shy, but just a little, and quick to smile and laugh. She made an appointment with me for lunch — was I ever that organized? — and we got to know each other. I was so impressed that I hired her for a part-time job the next summer at the Missourian.

Three years later, Allison is a smart, confident and conscientious journalist, something for which I take absolutely no credit. She asks good questions, too.

Like: When is it OK to get rid of a columnist who uses offensive speech? How did we choose these people in the first place?

Allison wants to know because she frequently edits the columns that run in the Missourian. And sometimes, she removes certain words and phrases – like “Jap” or “Oriental.” On a professional level, Allison is doing her job. Copy editors look at questions of taste, grammar, libel and more.

Those words hurt Allison.

It’s fashionable to be unfashionable. To take potshots at political correctness. But there’s enough to offend our sensibilities — corrupt politicians, global warming, starvation, homelessness, bad wars — without adding to the list.

I told you that Allison is smart. She knows the value of diversity of thought. So how do you weigh a columnist’s need to push different opinions against needless provocation? Poke at bad ideas and inept individuals. Don’t make insensitive or offensive remarks about an entire race.

Or, at least before you do, step in the shoes of Allison Shigeko Ross for a bit.

I’ll follow up with the Missourian’s writers. I’ll count on Allison, and others like her, to keep asking the good questions.

Which brings me to a poor segue.

You’ll start to see some questions with Missourian stories. They are meant to provoke discussion about an issue or event. One hope is for the comment section with stories to become a sort of chat room for ideas and argument. I would be happy if they caused you to send the story, or the question, along to a friend in an e-mail or a chat across the backyard fence. I welcome your reactions.

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