Has any media outlet been riding the figurative rollercoaster more than The Philadelphia Inquirer? Feels like the folks over there have been going up and down for five years now.
We’ve seen buyouts, layoffs, a defamation lawsuit, and most recently, a mass internal protest after the publishing of a headline reading “Buildings Matter, Too,” which was deemed insensitive in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and ensuing demonstrations. That ultimately resulted in the resignation of Executive Editor and Senior Vice President Stan Wischnowski as part of what seems to be an expansive self-audit of principles and procedures at the respected legacy newspaper.
Now we’ve got an update from the style committee, explaining that the term “Redskins” will no longer be used:
The Inquirer will no longer use the offensive name of a Washington football team, per an update from our style committee. We will also stop using the indirect phrase “officer-involved shooting” to describe police shooting a citizen
— Lisa Gartner (@lisagartner) June 24, 2020
Honestly, I’m surprised it took them this long to make that decision. Other local outlets put the kibosh on using the term “Redskins” years ago, whether it was the Eagles’ NFC East rival or Neshaminy high school football team. Philly Voice doesn’t use the term, CBS 3 doesn’t use the term, and similar editorial guidelines were issued by other media companies as early as 2013 and 2014.
Maybe the term is offensive or maybe it isn’t, which should be decided by Native Americans who are qualified to speak on the topic. Various pieces of research have been done over the years, including a 2016 Washington Post poll in which 9 of 10 indigenous Americans said they did not find the term offensive. Another poll, done a few years later by the University of Michigan and Cal Berkeley, found that about half of Native Americans did find the name offensive.
We can debate the poll results and talk about methodology, but the question as it pertains to the Inquirer is this:
Where does journalism end and activism begin?
Is the goal to push for change via our own editorial decision making, or are we to be objective and unbiased observers attempting to foster informed discussion?
Old school journos would say it’s the latter, that we’re supposed to just report the facts, present information, and then let people come to their own conclusions. We would parse polling numbers and gather data and help elevate the discourse to a level that allowed people to make educated decisions on controversial matters. Then, if Dan Snyder changes the name from “Redskins” to something else, we would adjust accordingly. We just wouldn’t insert ourselves personally into the matter.
More recently, journalists have started to cross that threshold and use their platforms to actively call for change while infusing their reporting with opinions, mostly because they feel as though it’s necessary to stand up for what they believe is right. A lot of that, I feel, is a direct response to President Trump shitting all over the industry, calling us fake news and the “enemy of the people,” which a lot of journalists took personally (see: Acosta, Jim). In response, they set aside their objectivity and neutrality and jumped into the fray.
Whereas newspapers used to restrict opinions to the editorial page, the lines are much more blurred in 2020, especially on personal social media accounts that are not necessarily monitored or restricted by employers. Peter Arnett wasn’t scrolling Twitter while reporting from Baghdad, yeah?
We would expect, for instance, Will Bunch to write the “It’s Time for the Redskins to Change Their Name” column, but traditionally it would be uncommon for editorial boards to say “we’re no longer using this word because it’s offensive.” They would simply let readers make their own decisions after Christine Flowers did the obligatory “Redskins Name is Fine” rebuttal.
Again, we’re basically asking ourselves where journalism ends and activism begins. Some would say that journalism itself is a form of activism. Others find sacred the concept of objectivity and the restraint required to bite our tongues despite feeling a certain way, especially during an extremely polarizing time in our nation’s history. It’s a difficult job to do in 2020, especially when people are choosing to ignore facts and/or just make shit up. You can understand why some journalists would break from protocol and feel the need to take the wheel themselves, like Jesus in that Carrie Underwood song.