Racial, ethnic, religious, gender and sexual orientation references

This section addresses these ethical questions:

News organizations differ widely on racial, ethnic, gender and religious references. They are a constant subject of discussion — discussion that is most effective when diverse voices are present in the newsroom and sought from outside.

Including identifiers in news coverage

Some news organizations avoid identifying a person or group by race, ethnicity, gender or religion unless it’s relevant to the story. Others feel these identifiers are as much of a fact as a person’s name, and reporters should not be squeamish about mentioning it. A publication that seek to promote or defend a particular group will naturally include identifiers some other publications might not.

Often when a person becomes the first of his or her race, gender, ethnicity or religion to attain some achievement or milestone, the reference makes sense. For example, most reporters would agree that when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, it was relevant to say he was the country’s first black president.

Two cautions on this score:

The achievement usually has to be something where the identifier is newsworthy. If a woman becomes the first Hispanic to make a college swimming team, that may not strike most readers as worth noting — unless Hispanic contenders have been discriminated against in the past or have put special effort into joining the team.

The positioning of the racial identification within the story may require thought. When Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York, the fact he was Jewish was not a headline element to many U.S. readers. His religion could safely be relegated to biographical material lower in the story. To readers in some other countries, the fact that the city’s mayor was a Jew was very important. (One news agency referred to him in its lead paragraph as a “Jewish billionaire.”)

Racial,ethnic and religious references go naturally into some stories. When members of a particular group demonstrate over an issue important to them as a group, their identity is a natural part of the story. On the other hand, if you would not point out that a CEO is male, you likely shouldn’t emphasize that a CEO is female.

When police issue detailed descriptions of suspects being sought, race is usually included, and news organizations report it as a public service. It’s important for the description to be detailed, however, so it’s useful rather than just a racial stereotype. “A black man in a T-shirt” doesn’t help the public in identifying the person being sought. In addition, media outlets should be careful to report race consistently in such situations and consider the whole of their reporting on victims and alleged perpetrators to ensure coverage is not tilted because of implicit or explicit bias.

But what happens when people of a certain race or ethnicity riot or commit a series of crimes, but the situation isn’t overtly over any issue related to race? Do we point out that the rioters and criminals are all from a certain group or should we refer to them simply as “youths” or “neighborhood residents”?

There are two major schools of thought:

If those involved do not introduce a racial element — by, for instance, shouting slogans or attacking members of another racial group — it’s not for journalists to introduce it. People may riot not specifically because of a racial grievance but because they’re poor or oppressed, which racial minorities may be. It’s a distraction from their economic plight for the press to try to make a racial issue of it.

OR

It would be completely obvious to any observer present at the time that those involved in the riot or crimes are of a certain race, and readers should not be deprived of information that anyone who was there could see. Trying to cover up the group involved is a form of political correctness that obscures what’s truly going on. The fundamental problem may be poverty or oppression, but the fact that certain minorities are the victims — and are striking back — must not be concealed.

Gender language

Gender references also matter in news coverage. With gender transition, most news organizations now refer to transgender people by the gender they express publicly, regardless of their gender at birth. There’s more disparity regarding people who identify themselves as being a different gender than their birth but have not completed a physical transition to a new gender. An example is Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier involved in the WikiLeaks case, who appeared to be a man outwardly but identified as a woman named Chelsea. News organizations were split initially on how to refer to Manning, but most eventually began to say “she,” reflecting Manning’s clear public statement that she identified as a woman.

Other people shun a binary male-or-female identification, seeing themselves as a combination of the two sexes or non-gender. Some publications follow precisely what the person wishes, including using such pronouns as “ze” or “hir” instead of “he” or “she.” Others try to avoid such pronouns, saying they do not want to confuse their readers, and they write in such a way as to avoid the need for pronouns at all. However, it always makes sense to take the space to convey clearly how a person identifies, if it is relevant to the story.

Some style guides default to males in pronoun usage, such as, “A student knows when he has worked hard enough to earn a good grade.” Yet this gendered expression can easily be rendered moot by making the usage plural, such as “Students know when they have worked hard enough to earn good grades.”

Sexual orientation references

Most style guides now advise avoiding the term “homosexual” unless in clinical uses. Gay (for men or women) or lesbian (for women) are preferred. Sexual orientation should not be included in a story unless it is specifically relevant to the issue or event being covered. “Sexual orientation” is preferred in all contexts to “sexual preference” or “living a gay lifestyle.” For gay couples who have legally married, “husband” and “wife” are appropriate unless eschewed by the subject.

This main author of this section is Thomas Kent.

Additional Resources
GLAAD, Media Reference Guide, August 2014
Neiman Reports, Covering Race, Class and Poverty in the New Gilded Age, March 15, 2001
NPR, Four Lessons from the Media’s Conflicted Coverage of Race, Dec. 6, 2014
RTNDA, Guidelines for Racial Identification, 2015