My column space this month is being used to bring readers up to date on some changes we are making in how we handle reporting of news stories in Downtown newsmagazine – in our print edition and online – providing me and readers a break from political commentary.
CAPITALIZING RACE: Long before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis which spawned the nationwide and worldwide protests over police violence, news organizations have been grappling with how we handle the identity of race when writing news stories.
The vast majority of news organizations rely on the style book created and constantly updated by The Associated Press (AP), including Downtown newsmagazine, with some personal variations, as the basis for writing style when presenting the news. The New York Times has its own style guidelines which adhere to much of the AP rules but with its own take on grammar and usage.
The protests over racial inequities in the past couple of months have brought to the forefront the discussion of how race categories are presented in news stories at both major and smaller media outlets.
AP appears to be the first news outlet, in mid June, to announce that Black would now be capitalized in news stories to describe people of African ancestry. The New York Times and Washington Post have also joined the movement, along with a host of print and broadcast outlets across the country.
In the announcement by the news organization, AP Vice President of Standards John Daniszewski noted the change “conveys an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa.”
Still being debated in many newsrooms is whether the racial identity terms “white” and “brown” should also be capitalized.
Downtown newsmagazine will be capitalizing Black, White and Brown in the future, much like other terms used to described members of other racial and ethnic groups like Asian, Native American, Hispanic, Latino, Chaldean, etc. It's a practice recommended a couple of years back by the National Association of Black Journalists.
For those who disagree with the style changes, I leave you with this thought from Mike Abrams, The New York Times Senior Editor for Editing Standards: “We don't treat the stylebook as an instrument of activism; we don't view it as at the vanguard of language. We generally want the stylebook to reflect common usage.”
MUGSHOT USEAGE: About three years ago I had an email exchange with a local reader who questioned why we ran mug shots with some stories about those headed to trial after being arrested for crimes in the local area. Her objection was that mug shots, created during probably one of the worst days of anyone's life, helped characterize or stigmatize the accused even before they had gone to trial.
Further, this reader also contended that pre-trial mugshots of Black men seemed to appear more frequently in print and on television than mugshots of White people who were arrested, thereby adding to a stereotype of an entire race of people as more likely to commit crimes. Possibly a valid point but as I noted to her at the time, newspapers are at the mercy of police departments that transmit the mugshots, and publications most often use them as a graphic illustration to accompany a story.
Since that exchange I have monitored what is happening in our industry and I learned that mugshots were first developed in the late 1800s in France. Put to use in America, mugshots often carried a tagline of “Irishman” or “Italian” – lending credence to the theory that mugshots or booking photos were often intended to be a public shaming of the accused and often with an ethnic or racial connotation.
Now mugshot or booking photo usage is the latest issue to be debated in newsrooms, with some news organizations deciding to no longer publish them.
Downtown newsmagazine's new policy is that we will not use booking mugshots prior to someone going on trial. We will, however, continue with the practice of publishing security camera photos and video supplied by police departments when local law enforcement is seeking the public's help in identifying a crime suspect.
WEBSITE COMMENTS: We are no longer allowing pubic comment on downtownpublications.com - our website.
The long and short of it is that we are following the lead of other news organizations that in the past year have turned off the public comment feature on their websites, starting with mlive.com last year and most recently the Metro Times.
The powers that be at the Metro Times said it best – we have a small staff and having to start each day and continue during the day to monitor what people are posting is time consuming, all because of online trolls who either post misinformation and complete falsehoods.
We continue to welcome letters to the editor for our Incoming section of the print edition. Letters can be sent to my email address which is listed below.
FUTURE OF FACEBOOK: I have been taking a look at our use of Facebook over the past year, thanks to an ongoing argument we have had with the social media giant since at least 2019.
We have had several clashes with the anonymous Facebook employees who control your fate if want to pay to “boost” a post you have made on your website.
On numerous occasions we have paid to promote wider distribution of a news item we have posted to our Facebook page. Usually we have not had a problem but our most recent skirmish was last month when we attempted to boost a post of a news story on the local lawsuit against the NextDoor community website. I selected the geographical area and age group that I wanted our post to reach but Facebook rejected the paid boost of the item – with no explanation. I appealed the decision and was rejected once again.
This is not the first time a news story has been prevented from being boosted and the result is always the same. This continues even after last year being invited by Facebook to be certified as a legitimate news organization so we would not have any problems in the future.
So, yes, I am giving consideration to ending our Facebook page.
As a social media site, it no longer draws the same level of involvement by the general public and has an increasing tendency to trend older.
In good conscience I simply cannot be part of Facebook if they reject valid news stories while at the same time allowing Donald Trump to go unchecked with his postings, along with postings from a slew of far right groups that pose a danger to our democracy.
So stay tuned.