On the Ethical Imperative to Be Offensive
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”—Voltaire
Philly.com columnist Mike Sielski wrote a column on Friday, December 19 on “The Obligation to use ‘R******” [the Washington NFL team name]. Here is Sielski, in his own words:
This idea might come off as old-fashioned, especially in our diverse and ever-expanding media world, but if you’re a reporter or a columnist or a newspaper or a magazine or a news website or maybe even an independent blogger or pretty much anyone who practices what can be called journalism, your primary responsibility ought to be the same: Report the facts as accurately and completely as possible, present them as accurately and completely as possible, and don’t let any agenda – political, social, personal – get in the way of those goals.
First and foremost, I think Sielski blurs the lines of “just the facts” reporting and the much more all-encompassing tent that is journalism. I’m a columnist. The definition of columnist includes the presence of my opinion. My biases are inseparable from my opinion because they compose its very being. That’s not the same as being (or not being) objective. It does mean disclosing biases when appropriate and being honest enough to look at (and value) opposing viewpoints.
So, I may vehemently disagree with Sielski’s opinion, but I support Sielski’s right to say it.
That echoes Voltaire’s famous quotation above. That’s how the First Amendment works. That’s how ethics works. No one, ever, is under the obligation to use a word they deem offensive, and (with all due respect to Sielski and no offense to him intended) I don’t understand how any serious ethicist would go down that road. It’s been said, yes, by many who want to shame journalists into using the term, but I’ve always dismissed it on its face because it seems truly absurd to me.
Travis Waldron covered this topic for the Columbia Journalism Review, writing:
Fred Brown, a vice chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee, likewise sees no ethical issue with dumping the name. “It’s a team name. To just refer to them as Washington—I don’t see a problem,” Brown said. “It’s not misleading people. Is it taking sides? In a way, yes it is. But you’re also avoiding offending people.”
“It’s an ethical problem to the same extent not using it is,” Brown said. “Those who use the name, are they taking a stand? You could maybe say they are, but it’s the same way those who don’t use it are.”
I’m a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, and Waldron cites their code of ethics in his piece above. I would first point anyone to the admonishment at the bottom that asks the code be taken as a whole and not have segments ripped out of context to make a point. There are, indeed, points which could be used to support Sielski’s point of view. However, as I read through the entire code, there seems to be much more weight against the idea that objectivity demands use of the name.
Edward Schumacher-Matos is the ombudsman of National Public Radio, he weighed in on the issue as the official policy of the newsroom at NPR had officially echoed Sielski’s sentiments (showing that, while I think he’s incorrect, he’s at least in good company). Schmacher-Matos, however, decried that decision:
It is not NPR’s position to be an advocate for what Snyder should do, but NPR does have responsibility over its own use of language. The newsroom makes word choices every day that reflect the institution’s values. On issues as heated as abortion, gay marriage, tax policy, health care and foreign wars, advocates often use terms that NPR has decided not to use because an alternative is fairer, more accurate or not hateful. That the name of the team is its own and innocently repeated by most of us does not make it any less of a slur to many Native Americans.
I also went to find the opinion of the one ethicist I trust more than any other on journalistic issues, Kelly McBride of Poynter. “I think that’s the perfect word to describe it”, said McBride when I reached out to her on this topic and called such an obligation absurd.
“I actually don’t think fairness or objectivity have anything to do with it. There’s two sets of values here: There’s the journalistic value that says you should be as fair as possible, but also the social ethics that our work lands in a community and we should not cause unnecessary harm.”
“We have always, as journalists, decided what to call organizations and individuals.”, McBride said, pointing out the evolution of the way journalists have used terms for Black Americans to even what we called organizations like ISIS. “Labels have always had massive political connotations. You don’t get the right to name yourself, if in doing so you’re being patently offensive or racist in doing so. You can’t force me to be part of your racism and offensiveness.”
Echoing Brown above, McBride also pointed out that using the name is just as much taking a stand as not using it is: “If you insist on using R****** in your reporting, you’re saying the football team is more important than the Native American people. That’s crazy…to think that the football team should have a bigger say in what they’re called than the Native Americans themselves who are offended by it.”
McBride recorded an episode of the podcast “Everyday Ethics” on the use of Washington’s team name. She, and the other two ethics experts argued against the use of the name by the team itself and in the media, but I think I enjoyed the tagline at the end of the program as much as any of the points McBride and the others made—many of which have already been made here:
“Knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what’s right to do.”
I think that’s the crux of this issue. I hate the Washington team name. I didn’t always, but as I learned more about its history and why people were offended by it, I came to hate it more and more. My position on the word has become more informed and has evolved. I am disappointed in myself for ever having used it, just I am disappointed when my friends and colleagues use it. I wish they didn’t.
Still, it’s not my place to make rules or impose an obligation on anyone else not to use it.
They have a right to use it, just as I have a right not to use it.
Ethically, though, because it is—by definition—a slur and is offensive to many, I do not believe I am obligated to use it, nor do am I obligated to condone its use by others—even if they have a right to do so—because I believe it is not right to do so.
That, too, is my right.
You’re obligated to respect that.