NPR ombudsman: Time to stop using ‘Redskins’

Some years ago, the Star Tribune sports department decided to stop using team nicknames that people might find offensive. Out were the “Indians” and “Redskins,” for example, and in was “the team from Cleveland” or the “team from Washington.”

It lasted for about a season and then the policy quietly disappeared.

Should NPR consider following suit?

Scott Simon, the host of Weekend Edition, refers to the Redskins as “the Washington football club whose team name I refuse to utter.”

Edward Schumacher-Matos, the NPR ombudsman, considers whether journalists should decide when a fact isn’t one that deserves to be in a story.

But the reaction by NPR listener Fielding McGehee of San Diego, Calif., to Simon presented the dilemma in a different way. The team name is “unfortunate,” McGehee said, however adding: “But the problem is, you are a newsman, and as such, your role is to report the facts. It doesn’t matter what you think about the facts, the truth of the matter is, the name of the Washington football team is the Redskins, and as a reporter—and until such time as the name has been changed—you need to bring yourself to say the word.”

NPR editors and sports reporters this past season met on the issue and decided to continue to use the team’s name in news reports, editors told me. “Since the name of the team is the Washington Redskins, we use that in our reporting,” Deputy Managing Editor Chuck Holmes said. But he added, “We also continue to cover issues prompted by the name.”

And so it is that since the beginning of last year, 23 NPR segments used the name of the team without comment, and another 14 either focused on the name dispute or mentioned it in passing. Hourly newscasts were not counted.

Which side is ethically correct from a journalistic perspective?

Schumacher-Matos says he first defended the NPR policy, which is to call the teams by their names, but then decided it’s time for NPR to change its policy.

Each of us will answer and weigh the questions in our own way, but my own conclusion based on the investigation that follows is that NPR should begin to purposefully disassociate itself from using the Redskins or the Washington Redskins on air and online.

The name should be avoided in Web headlines and used only infrequently in stories. Some news stories—not all—should note the name dispute in passing. Other features and analytical stories should continue to directly focus on the dispute and the use of Indian mascots by other teams, as was done this past season. Scott Simon, who has some leeway as a long-time host who also does commentaries, should be left to do what he is doing, as a major voice inside NPR reflecting a Native American view.

The hope is to encourage a public debate, allow Native Americans to be fully heard and see what social consensus emerges.

This course I recommend is necessarily messy, but it reflects how the accepted meaning of the name is being questioned and is in transition: changing, but not enough for NPR to put a moral stake in the ground and ban the name altogether.

It doesn’t set much of a precedent in reporting, the ombudsman notes.

“The newsroom makes word choices every day that reflect the institution’s values,” he writes. “On issues as heated as abortion, gay marriage, tax policy, health care and foreign wars, advocates often use terms that NPR has decided not to use because an alternative is fairer, more accurate or not hateful. That the name of the team is its own and innocently repeated by most of us does not make it any less of a slur to many Native Americans.”

  • John Peschken

    “Since the name of the team is the Washington Redskins, we use that in our reporting,”

    If the team name were the Washington N****** would he use that?

  • MikeB

    Just because it is a name of a professional sports team does not make it less of a racial slur.