Event Recap: “Words Matter” at the SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference

By Avery Luke

“Words Matter,” featuring panelists Paula Froke, Dorothy Tucker, and Kam Burns, was one of many relevant and informative breakout sessions at SPJ’s 2020 Journalism Conference. The discussion centered around the question: What steps can journalists take to be precise in language and style choices in regard to race, gender, and identity?

Paula Froke, who is an editor for the Associated Press, began the discussion by addressing the recent additions to the AP Stylebook in 2020 to make the guide more inclusive and modern. Among those decisions was the capitalization of “Black,” the removal of the hyphen in “African American” and “Asian American,” and their newer entry on gender-neutral language.

Using specificity as a tool to convey identity was another key issue brought up several times throughout the session. For example, the panel discussed the broadness behind terms like “community” and “urban,” and how those terms can distract from the focus of an article.

‘I think what’s happening is that the term “community” is beginning to be associated with blacks or Hispanics,’ said Dorothy Tucker, who is the president of the National Association of Black Journalists. ‘It’s not like you hear the word community and think of ‘white community, so say what you mean.’

Remaining consistent as a journalist is crucial. “How should you decide which pronoun to use when someone has multiple gender identifiers?” was a question posed to Kam Burns, who is a founding member of the Trans Journalist Association. 

“Ask [the subject], because people have different pronouns they want to use for different contexts,” Burns said.

On the topic of whether it is most appropriate to use LGBTQ?, LGBTQ+?, or LGBTQIA, Burns said, “When you’re talking about a specific subgroup of the LGBTQ community, say so. There’s often no such thing as an LGBTQ person— very few people fit into all of those categories at once.”

Tracy Everbach, who is a professor at the University of North Texas and a member of the SPJ Diversity Committee, summarized the overall message of the panel in the last moments of the debate.

All participating members of the panel agree — “Be specific in your writing, ask people how they want to be identified, try to seek out stories that show the breadth of a group of people rather than stereotyping or only doing one kind of story about that group.”

Published by spjonadepaul

Official website for DePaul University's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.

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