Sensitivity or Homogenization?

By Zuzel, Michael | The Masthead, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Sensitivity or Homogenization?


Zuzel, Michael, The Masthead


AN EDITORIAL DESCRIBES a shifting government policy as "schizophrenic."

A commentator uses the term "educational nanny" in referring to a court's intrusion in a school expulsion case.

An editorial cartoon depicts a pair of Klansmen discussing a newspaper story about Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, with one of the robed figures suggesting that the "nigger," whose views many would describe as racist, actually makes a lot of sense.

In each instance, journalists found themselves accused of insensitivity -- or worse. The editorial that used the term "schizophrenic" was attacked as a slur against the mentally ill. The pundit who employed the term "nanny" was accused of perpetuating ethnic stereotypes, chiefly because the judge in the expulsion case was black. And the editorial cartoon, although intended as a caustic disapproval of racist attitudes, was itself widely condemned as racist.

That newspaper editorial pages can, even inadvertently, find themselves at odds with reader sensibilities was the subject of "How to get into hot water: Sensitivity and standards in editorial pages," a panel discussion at the NCEW convention. The forum was moderated by John Finneman, deputy director of the American Press Institute. Participants were Dinah Eng, whose regular column "Bridges" is distributed nationally by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate; Dennis Renault, editorial cartoonist for The Sacramento Bee; and Clarence Page, editorial writer and columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Not surprisingly, panelists found it easier to delineate the dilemmas than to chart any solutions.

Finneman suggested that most editorial pages need little instruction on how to get into hot water with readers. "By the very nature of what you do," he said, "you're going to offend some of the people some of the time." Increasingly, however, newspapers are going to extraordinary lengths to respect the diversity of its audience and avoid offending those constituencies unnecessarily, Finneman said.

"Are we going to see a homogenization of pages, a homogenization of issues?" Finneman asked. He doesn't think so. If the press can get past petty charges of "political correctness" -- of the sort leveled against the much-ridiculed Los Angeles Times stylebook, for example -- then it can begin to deal with the serious questions of sensitivity and diversity.

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