NPR reverses direction on ‘Redskins’

NPR has reversed its position on the use of the word “Redskins.”

“Since the name of the team is the Washington Redskins, we use that in our reporting,” Deputy Managing Editor Chuck Holmes said last March. But he added, “We also continue to cover issues prompted by the name.”

That changed this week when NPR executives ordered staff to stop using the name except when referring to the controversy over it with the Washington Redskins. It’s safe to say that it’s unlike the word would’ve come up in any other context on a network like NPR, but the concession is yet another indication that its continued use is occurring on borrowed time.

Here’s the NPR memo:

Mark Memmott, the standards editor, issued this guidance to the newsroom Friday:

We have not changed it significantly, but we have added to our guidance on the name of Washington’s NFL team. Here’s an update:

NPR News does not plan to prohibit the use of the full team name. The team’s name is the name and our job is to report on the world as it is, not to take a position or become part of the story.

But, our policy on potentially offensive language states that “as a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience. Use of such language on the air [and online] has been strictly limited to situations where it is absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”

That guidance should be kept in mind. Here’s how:

As a network, we do not have much occasion to report on this club. When we do, we can usually refer to it simply as “Washington” or “the team” once we’ve established that we’re talking about the city’s NFL franchise. This line, for example, was on our air after the firing of Washington’s coach: “Last year the Redskins made the playoffs, this year they were only 3-13, Mike Shanahan was held to account.” We could have said: “Last year Washington made the playoffs, this year the team was only 3-13, Mike Shanahan was held to account.”

Headlines about the team (on the few stories we might post about the club that aren’t about the name controversy) can be a difficult issue. “Seahawks Crush Redskins” can be changed to “Seattle Crushes Washington.” But “Giants Crush Redskins” can’t become “New York Crushes Washington” because a reader wouldn’t know if we’re referring to the Giants or the Jets.

Again, we are not prohibiting the use of the full team name. At times, it will have to be used – particularly when reporting about the controversy. At times, it may sound awkward to refer to the club as “Washington” or “the team.” Clarity in our reporting is vital. In some cases, achieving that clarity will require using the team’s name (for instance, to distinguish the club from Washington’s other sports teams). Guests will surely use
the word Redskins during interviews.

But we can also be sensitive, avoid overuse of the word and use alternatives – as we would with other potentially offensive language.

The move comes in response to NPR outgoing ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, who recommended the approach last spring and today is taking something of a victory lap.

I suspect that, in practice, NPR will rarely, if ever, use the R-word again. Or, it will be couched in some way. What we are witnessing is a shifting media consensus on how to define and use a word with racial implications. We American journalists like to insist that it is not our responsibility to decide on what facts to report—”we report, you decide,” goes the saying—but that is true only to a point, as NPR’s own Code of Ethics states. For a smart analysis on how the news media arrives at an unstated consensus on something, read this story by one of NPR’s own political reporters, Alan Greenblatt.

What caused the recent NPR switch, Memmott said, was that local Washington member station WAMU asked to talk about the issue. “That led us to think more about our guidance,” Memmott told me. “It seemed like we could sharpen the wording. I don’t know what, if anything, WAMU will do.”

Already, The New York Daily News, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Kansas City Star, The Oregonian and dozens of small and medium-sized news organizations across the country refuse or rarely ever use the name. So do a growing list of sports commentators, athletes, political leaders, civil rights groups, education groups and churches. The Washington City Council, the New York and California state assemblies and President Barack Obama have come out against the name. Since the extensive analysis that I did in March, even the granddaughter of the team’s founder George Preston Marshall, demands that the team change its name. History does not support that Marshall thought of honoring Native Americans when he picked the provocative name 81 years ago.

For the record, the new NPR policy matches the one already in effect at MPR.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    If “the team” were playing better football I suspect it would become a bit more of an issue for Bill Littlefield and the crew of “Only A Game”. But since it looks like the Washington football team is headed for another dismal year maybe they can avoid any stories about them.

  • davehoug

    Polite society changes. “in the family way” or expecting as opposed to the too-crass pregnant. Heck, women used to have limbs rather than legs, glow rather than sweat. Anyone recall women’s pants with the zipper on the side because in front was too crude 🙂

    Going from N-word to colored to Negro to black was all about what polite society deemed proper.