That Troubling Term: "Political correctness."(Column)

By Keith, Luther | Editor & Publisher, December 23, 1995 | Go to article overview

That Troubling Term: "Political correctness."(Column)


Keith, Luther, Editor & Publisher


DEAR COLLEAGUES:

I'm troubled by our news coverage on this issue of so-called "political correctness."

As editors and reporters, we're tossing the phrase willy-nilly into all manner of "objective" news stories apparently without realizing - or not caring - that doing so fuels the fires of racial and gender intolerance.

Some of us seem to think that stories are "sexier," or will "get better play" if we insert the term "politically correct." Almost invariably this occurs in stories involving questions of sensitivity - whether it be racial, ethnic or cultural.

At the heart of the issue is our failure to grasp that the term "politically correct" is not neutral in any way. It is a verbal hand grenade, dropping with editorial innuendo and connoting some cockeyed, super-liberal idea of sensitivity at the expense of someone else's freedoms.

A creation of right-learning opponents of change, the phrase is a brilliant marketing assault on ethnic, gender and sexual diversity. In just a few years, the words "politically correct" have become as much a part of the American lexicon as Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola. Everyone, it seems, is using it - ironically, even many of the people who are the targets of this assault - women and people of color.

My own view is that the obsession with stamping issues "politically correct" is a crutch for people who really aren't interested in substantive discussion.

But my primary concern is that, as journalists, we must be held to a higher standard. Our role is not to arbitrarily wed "political correctness" to issues any time we feet like it.

The moment we do, we signal the reader to discount - or at minimum, view with skepticism - the validity of the subject of the news story.

No, I'm not saying the phrase "politically correct," should be banned from news stories. I'm saying it should be used in proper context. That means clearly using the phrase with attribution to a news source.

Clearly, however, we have strayed way over that line. We've recently seen a proliferation of the term "politically correct" in connection with the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians.

It seems like every news service and sportswriter in America found a way to say that the World Series was "politically, incorrect" or, as an Associated Press report described it, "not for the politically correct." This completely discounts the very valid concerns of many Native Americans who find the use of these Indian nicknames offensive and culturally insensitive.

Then there was the coverage of Halloween. The term "politically correct" was repeatedly thrown into news stories that examined the trend toward celebrating Halloween without celebrating gore and violence. As the parent of a four-year-old, my concern with her exposure to horrors of Halloween has nothing to do with being "politically correct" - but everything to do with the kind of daughter I want to raise.

But there are plenty of other examples.

USA Today: A story about the official dictionary for the board game Scrabble talked about its new edition eliminating words deemed obscene, racist and sexist. The writer - not anyone in the story - chose to label the changes a "politically correct edition." A headline writer then compounded the slant by writing "Scrabble makes point with politically correct. …

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