If anything it was the other way around
Journalists are supposed to minimize harm when reporting on stories. It’s in our code of ethics. Yet, over the past two days, journalists seem to be falling over themselves using language, knowing and perhaps unknowingly, that inflicts pain.
It started Monday morning, post-Oscar Awards broadcast, when an anchor for an Ohio Fox News affiliate used the racially offensive term, jigaboos, to give a back-handed compliment to singer, Lady Gaga. Then we learned E!’s Fashion Police co-host Giuliana Rancic made a racially derogatory remark about Disney actress Zendaya Coleman’s hairstyle. Rancic has since apologized a second time to the 18-year-old star, but this piece isn’t about that ignorance (even though Rancic has a master’s degree in journalism from American University). It’s about the way news organizations covered the whole affair.
These are just some of the headlines blaring from cable news journalists/personalities and news articles about the latter dust-up: “Zendaya Coleman ‘rips’ Giuliana Rancic for making ‘insensitive comments.’” “Fans support Zendaya post-’rant.’” “Zendaya outraged…”Zendaya Coleman Rips Guiliana Rancic For Making Insensitive Comments About Her Dreadlocks.” Zendaya Coleman blasts Giuliana Rancic over dreadlock jokes.” “Zendaya Coleman slams Fashion Police for ‘outrageously offensive’ remarks.” “Singer hits back after E! host says dreadlocks ‘smell of weed.'” “Zendaya Coleman Blasts TV Presenter Over Hair Comments.” CNN also blared that Coleman had “blasted” Rancic.
Rancic initially offered a terse excuse apology and—since the media loves to paint abstruse portraits of Angry Black Women—Zendaya Coleman and her supporters were accused of being “too overly sensitive,” of “lashing out” and of “blasting” the Fashion Police host, when Zendaya’s response was nothing but patient and eloquent.
What Coleman did was give a very professional, dare I say elegant and diplomatic, response to disparaging insults hurled her way by a TV show host as her cohorts cackled in the background. Coleman did not rip into or blast anyone. If anything it was Rancic who did the ripping.
Why is Coleman’s response a “rip” but the actual insult is an “insensitive comment?”
Though they aren’t supposed to, journalists increasingly use loaded terms because they believe controversy sells, and gets clicks. Unfortunately, this bias for the dramatic overtakes accuracy. In this case it also misleads readers as to what actually transpired and feeds into racial stereotype, i.e. “the angry black woman” versus the “helpless white person who doesn’t know any better.” Both are insulting, by the way. And in this case using such language paints the wrong person as the aggressor.
“Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect,” SPJ’s Code of Ethics states. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” It further states: “Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles….” And the code calls for journalists to handle with care “subjects who are inexperienced…” and to “consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.”
Ethical journalists don’t mislead viewers or readers, and they certainly don’t seek to relay inaccurate information. Really, all journalists have to do is follow our own standards in order to avoid pitfalls like this. We should also strive to use more inclusive language; preferably terms for which we know the meanings.
Inclusive language is language that is free from words, phrases or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. It is also language that does not cast people in a negative light, especially when they don’t deserve to be there.
Women of color, including black women, have the right to defend themselves when assailed with anti-Black violence, especially coming from white people with large media platforms, who operate from places of pedestaled privilege, and are complicit in trying to push women of color to the fringe.
Women of color have the right to reaffirm who they are without being dubbed as angry, irrational or thin-skinned. Rancic was wrong. Period. And the accountability should remain with her. If anything, Rancic’s public gaffe, and many journalists’ reaction to it, just emphasizes the need for more media diversity and representation, including in entertainment and fashion journalism.
Inadvertent or not, writing or saying that Coleman ripped into Rancic, presumes that she’s an angry or aggressive person- both are mischaracterizations and stereotypes of black people. And dismissing Rancic’s comments about Coleman “smelling like patchouli oil” or “weed” as just insensitive remarks is adding insult to injury, especially when in fact the statement is much more. Rancic’s comments are evidence of prejudice against others, in quite the same way “jigaboo” is evidence of prejudice against others, intentional or not.
Journalists can, and should, do better.
Tiff Jones contributed to this report.