From the Newsroom: The Daily’s decision to use the word “racist”

Marissa Martinez, Print Managing Editor

In this series, Daily staff members hope to provide more transparency about how we operate. If you would like to submit a question to be answered here, please send an email to [email protected].


It’s the word no one wants to be called. Especially in America, it carries the unique connotation of intentionally seeking to hurt someone with words or actions. And it’s a word the historically white press has cartwheeled around using for decades. “Racially tinged.” “Racially motivated.” “Racially charged.” Euphemisms like these pepper national coverage.

According to a 2018 interview with NPR Standards and Practices editor Mark Memmott, journalists sidestep using the word to label people, for example, because words and actions are “easier to sort of identify, to explain. You can use action words to describe what it was this person did — action words to describe what the effects of their words were. The words might have the effect of raising racial tensions or inflaming race relations.”

While this may seem simple in theory, racial tension is one of the most sidestepped issues in media today. An anti-Semitic act would not be described as “religiously charged,” nor would a misogynistic comment be called “gender charged.” Almost all journalists would describe them in the clearest and most concise way: anti-Semitic and sexist, respectively.

For a country so deeply founded on the principles of racial exclusion, media outlets of all political leanings and compositions avoid saying “racist” at all costs. However, we at The Daily have decided to use “racist” to describe subjects that fall under the dictionary definition: prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against someone based on their race, especially when distinguishing it as inferior or superior to another.

The most recent incidents that have caused us to re-examine our policies have been the Kanazawa controversy, the “It’s OK to be white” stickers placed on campus and the noose found in Henry Crown Sports Pavilion. These events, in particular, have sparked a lot of conversation on campus, not only about the racism they represent, but about the ability to use the word “racist” itself. In our own newsroom, we struggled at first to call Kanazawa’s work racist — in the original article, we worked around the term, while in the staff editorial denouncing him and calling for action from the University, we used “racist.” However, this inability to call the research what it was — racist — constitutes a negative reflection of our coverage and does not properly serve the marginalized communities on our campus, which is why we decided to take another look at our policy.

The historically white press has often avoided calling incidents, words and people “racist” because it is seen as a “subjective” term that carries “bias.” However, objectivity in journalism is a concept rooted in keeping the readership of the intended audience. More often than not, the coverage caters to and accommodates wealthy, white men as the subjects, readers and reporters. But catering to solely to this demographic does a disservice to the marginalized communities most affected by these incidents — people who understand American structures to be built on racial discrimination, who are harmed by this so-called “objective” view of not calling something racist.

The Associated Press Stylebook, one of the guides The Daily uses to determine spelling, grammar and phrasing standards within our articles, recently updated its guidelines on using the word “racist.” In March, they changed their entry for the word: “The terms racism and racist can be used in broad references or in quotations to describe the hatred of a race, or assertion of the superiority of one race over others.” However, the guide made a distinction for people: “In general, avoid using racist or any other label as a noun for a person; it’s far harder to match the complexity of a person to a definition or label than it is a statement or action.”

The Daily will continue to call words and actions that fall under these descriptions as they are: racist. Anything else would be a disservice to our campus and Evanston communities — particularly people of color — and not reflect the mission of our paper.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @mar1ssamart1nez