When Michael Persinger decided earlier this month that the Charlotte Observer would join the list of newspapers, magazines, and online publications that no longer print the name of the Washington Redskins, he expected a backlash.
He didn’t have to wait long. Persinger, the Observer’s executive sports editor, estimated that at least 95 percent of the calls and emails he received in response to to his Sept. 6 column announcing the decision were negative. The figure is hardly shocking in Charlotte, NC, where the team, by virtue of years of marketing itself in the southeast, was incredibly popular long before the Carolina Panthers came to town. And the tone of comments on Persinger’s column explaining the decision was less-than-surprising too.
“So another ‘news’ organization sacrifices its journalistic integrity at the altar of political correctness,” one of the comments read. “If the Observer admits it is willing in this case to obfuscate its reporting in this case by evading using the real name of something, why should we believe anything the Observer reports?”
The Observer is hardly alone. When The Oregonian quit using “Redskins” and other Native American names to refer to sports teams in 1992, few followed. But as the debate over the name has intensified over the last year, the number of outlets and individual journalists choosing not to use it has grown rapidly, with the Observer, the Washington Post’s editorial board and the New York Daily News the most prominent among outlets that recently to dropped it. TV networks are getting in the game too: CBS, Fox, NBC, and ESPN all decided to give their on-air talent and reporters the option to avoid saying the name during NFL broadcasts this season, and some of their most notable names have chosen to use “Washington” exclusively.
The growing move inside news outlets to skip out on the name of a sports franchise that has existed for nearly 80 years is not always an easy one. For all the well-publicized criticism of the name from Native American groups and prominent politicians, it is still broadly popular across the United States, and there is hardly a consensus in the media about how to treat it.
The most prominent concern regarding these new policies is whether outlets that avoid using the name are putting their thumbs on the scales of an increasingly intense debate in a way that compromises their integrity and puts them in a position, to borrow Persinger’s words, “of making the news instead of covering the news.”
But Persinger had thought about dropping the name for at least two years, he said, and as he wrote in the column explaining the decision, recent events—a letter from 50 US Senators calling for a name-change, Native American groups’ rising vocal opposition, and the US Patent and Trademark Office’s ruling that “Redskins” is “disparaging to Native Americans”—forced him into action.
He said he met with fellow editors before the paper finally made its decision, explaining that nothing else would change in their coverage of the team thanks to its popularity among readers.
“We’re not going to cover them any differently,” Persinger said, adding that the paper will still run separate previews and stories ahead of Washington’s games most weekends. “We want to do right by them and right by our readers. We just don’t think it’s a word we should use.”
The Observer, in fact, conducted an experiment of sorts to test the idea before Persinger made it a policy. A week before his column ran, the paper refrained from printing the name.
“Nobody noticed,” he said. “It didn’t affect the product, other than we chose to leave something out that we saw as offensive. We make these types of decisions every day.”
Fred Brown, a vice chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee, likewise sees no ethical issue with dumping the name.
“It’s a team name. To just refer to them as Washington—I don’t see a problem,” Brown said. “It’s not misleading people. Is it taking sides? In a way, yes it is. But you’re also avoiding offending people.”
That’s a pertinent ethical issue too, one that SPJ’s Code of Ethics references. Journalists, it says, should “minimize harm” for their subjects, balancing “the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort” and showing “compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.” It is easy to see how printing “Redskins,” which prominent Native American groups refer to as a “dictionary-defined slur,” can fit into that category.
Indeed, the Change The Mascot campaign, led by the Oneida Indian Nation and National Congress of American Indians, has raised its own ethical issues with outlets that continue to print the name, arguing in a recent letter to broadcasters that they are no more objective than the outlets that have stopped.
“Some might argue that objectivity requires broadcasters to continue promoting the racial slur as long as Washington team owner Dan Snyder keeps denigrating Native Americans by using the epithet as his team’s name,” the letter states. It continues:
But in this particular fight for basic equality and respect, there is no “objective” position. Every time the slur is promoted on the public airwaves even in a non-critical way by a journalist, it is an endorsement of the continued use of this slur. In other words, using this word is not just to legitimize it—it is to endorse its use, to ignore its definition and to defend its message.
The groups have pointed to publications from the 19th century, when “redskin” appeared in bounty notices, to bolster their case. But while it may be preferable that outlets drop the name to avoid offense, choosing to continue using it in print doesn’t necessarily compromise coverage of the controversy around it either.
“It’s an ethical problem to the same extent not using it is,” Brown said. “Those who use the name, are they taking a stand? You could maybe say they are, but it’s the same way those who don’t use it are.”
Keeping “Redskins” in print doesn’t necessitate avoiding the issues around it, though, and Patrick Stegman, the vice president and editor in chief of ESPN.com, outlined a sensible policy for keeping the name but covering the fight to ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte in 2013.
“To simply ignore the nickname in our coverage seems like nothing more than grandstanding,” Stegman said, as quoted in Lipsyte’s piece. “We can use the name of the team, but our best service to fans is to report the hell out of the story, draw attention to the issue and cover all aspects of the controversy.”
In the same way that Persinger and the Observer haven’t altered their coverage without the name, neither has ESPN changed its own with it, as online columns addressing the controversy, stories that explore different angles of the issue, and a recent Outside The Lines special report have made clear. In other words, outlets can fall on either side of the debate about whether to print the name while still covering both the team and the controversy fairly and comprehensively.
Whatever their choice, though, reporters, editors, and their publications “need to decide what your policy is, and you need to be transparent about it,” Brown said. This is, ultimately, not unlike many of the newsroom decisions made every day about what to cover, who to talk to, how to frame stories, and what is worth printing, and neither is it unlike many of the other debates over what is fit to publish and what isn’t.
And while any of these decisions may lead to criticism, it is often short-lived. As Persinger said, the Observer “made news for a weekend, and now we’re doing the right thing forever.”