Which words do we use? When? And why?

When we heard that our friends at the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) were coming to Denver for their 2021 conference, we were thrilled. Not only were we excited to show off our home turf, but we were eager to connect with and learn from newsroom leaders. 

This year’s conference was unconventional. RTDNA21 was a space for journalists to immerse themselves in community, connection, service and leadership. The industry needed a break. Every day, news leaders are faced with the enormous responsibility of telling their community’s stories in ways that are respectful, inclusive and objective. Every. Single. Day. This isn’t easy – especially for the past 20 months when crisis dominated the headlines. RTDNA21 gave news leaders an opportunity to reflect, relax, rejuvenate and restore. It was much needed. 

The Barefoot team was eager to join in. We left our Bannock Street HQ to attend Which Words: Covering with Caution, a session hosted by Scott Libin and Terence Shepherd. Libin, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Shepherd, long-time news director at South Florida’s NPR Station WLRN, facilitated a challenging and captivating conversation on the importance of word choice in the newsroom – especially when it comes to covering issues of politics, pandemic, power, race and culture.  

The conversation began with a reflection on the meaning of words like objective, true, evenhanded and fair. “Objective” was the word the group discussed the longest. To the journalists and news directors in the room, objectivity was essential to their reporting. This meant avoiding descriptors that suggested an opinion or encouraged audiences to jump to half-baked conclusions. Causal descriptors including “young” or “old” were off limits. The room agreed that if the facts exist, they should be presented as is – with no sugar-coating or dramatizing to enhance the intrigue of the story. 

We moved on from objectivity to discuss even-handedness and balance in news. To newsroom leaders, a “both sides” mentality is limiting. It oversimplifies our stories. Unless it’s from the Supreme Court, a story doesn’t have only two perspectives. When diving into a story, it’s essential that all sides are considered, heard and respected. It’s easy to default to the binary, but that shortcut ends up hurting our stories in the end. 

The session ended with an exercise where we selected a topic – race, politics, LGBTQ+, policing – and discussed the words we use to talk about it. The group we joined deliberated on which words were right and wrong when covering the #MeToo movement. After a few minutes, we reached an important conclusion. As storytellers, we must work with individuals and communities to understand which words are right for them. How do they identify? What is their experience? What’s their story? When we have these discussions, we’re able to expand our vocabulary and create better stories.  

It was incredible being in a room with news leaders who share our appreciation and understanding of the importance of language. It was empowering to see that newsroom across the country are actively engaged in conversations about respectful, inclusive and accurate word choice. Zoe and I left the session totally energized and eager to share our conversations with the team. 

All communicators – whether we work in print journalism, public relations, broadcast – know words have power. Our word choices matter. To make sure we’re using them well, it’s essential we initiate and continue to engage in conversations on word choice with our teams and our communities. By doing this, we better account for our blind spots and biases and tell more respectful stories. To put it simply, let’s think before we speak and invite others to think with us. 

We’re excited to continue these conversations. If you have any words you’d like to share with us, let us know.  

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