Language changes constantly. So should how journalists use it.
“It’s our responsibility as journalists to listen to our sources and audiences and pay close attention to the subtleties and nuances of our language as it evolves,” says Rachele Kanigel, editor of The Diversity Style Guide.
As newsrooms work to ensure social justice pervades all beats and grapple with their own racial reckonings, changes to how media organizations reference race and identity markers within text seem to signal some progress in mirroring communities accurately.
Updates to The Diversity Style Guide — capitalizing Black, the addition of BIPOC, and more — are among definitions and information from more than two dozen style guides, journalism organizations and other resources. The guide “contains more than 700 terms related to race/ethnicity, disability, immigration, sexuality and gender identity, drugs and alcohol, and geography.”
Kanigel, journalism professor and department chair at San Francisco State University, said she hopes journalists and other media professionals will use the website and the book as a jumping off place for discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion.
“A lot of media organizations have one person — often a particular copy editor or copy chief — who makes most of the decisions about style,” Kanigel said. “I think these decisions should be made by a diverse group of people who consider multiple factors.”
We reached out to Kanigel to learn how the The Diversity Style Guide, which is supported by grants from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation of the Society of Professional Journalists and the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University, can help journalists today.
When journalists look for guidance on style related to representation and identity, they have many reference points — AP, identity-based journalism organizations, and others. How does The Diversity Style Guide fit into that landscape of reference materials? Does it replace or supplement those guides, which sometimes give different advice on usage?
Kanigel: The Diversity Style Guide is meant to be a supplement to the AP Stylebook and other general style guides. It pulls together guidance from more than 20 style guides and many other reference materials in one place and refers users back to those original sources. Because it relies on information from so many different sources, it offers users up-to-date information, often from the communities being written about. For example, many terms about Native people come from the Native American Journalists Association and terms about LGBTQ people come from NLGJA and GLAAD style guides. I like to think the advice is a little more current than some news organization style guides, which can be a bit slow to change.
How often does The Diversity Style Guide team update entries, and how do they research and decide what should be included? When there is a difference of opinion on what style should be, how is that addressed?
Kanigel: The “team” is basically me. I update and add new entries frequently, based on suggestions from readers or changes in language I hear or read about. For example, just last week, I added an entry for BIPOC and I updated the entry for Black a couple of days ago to include news that the Associated Press, The New York Times and other media organizations had changed their style to capitalize the b in Black. When there is a difference of opinion among sources, I consult other reference materials and sometimes call individuals I trust to seek out their opinions.
Are you seeing more traffic to or questions about The Diversity Style Guide, given the conversations around racism and representation taking place today?
Kanigel: Yes, absolutely. Traffic to the site has increased a lot over the past month and I’ve gotten several inquiries recently for media interviews, presentations and consulting (See this interview in a new publication called The Objective). I think a lot of media organizations are paying more attention to the language they use around race and ethnicity, in particular, but I hope that will extend to other areas of diversity.
What can journalists at any level in a newsroom do to ensure they are producing representative work?
Kanigel: No. 1 is that newsrooms need to be more diverse, not just in their staffs, but in their leadership. To make wise, informed decisions about coverage every media outlet needs a team of people who can look at issues from multiple perspectives and share their knowledge. Individual journalists need to ask questions and approach every assignment with humility. They should ask, rather than assume, what people want to be called, what pronouns they use. You can’t tell just by looking at someone what race or gender they are.
What else would you like readers to know about The Diversity Style Guide?
Kanigel: I hope that journalists and other media professionals will use the website and the book as a jumping off place for discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion. A lot of media organizations have one person — often a particular copy editor or copy chief — who makes most of the decisions about style. I think these decisions should be made by a diverse group of people who consider multiple factors. Language is constantly changing; it’s our responsibility as journalists to listen to our sources and audiences and pay close attention to the subtleties and nuances of our language as it evolves