Jim Romenesko links to an interesting blog by John L. Robinson about the language of the newsroom and suggests that journalists–who make their livings with words–shouldn’t feel constrained by pushing the boundaries of taste and sensitivities in their everyday interactions.
Here’s a flavor of Robinson’s larger point:
I know this makes me sound like one of those nutcases that blames everything bad in society today on the PC culture. Nope, not me. I’m glad that people can’t smoke in the newsroom. I support the limitation of dropping F-bombs. Newsrooms and news coverage has been vastly improved by the gender and racial diversification of the staff. Lowering the sexual tension and chauvistic temperature is a must.
But sometimes people who make their living with colorful, descriptive words can’t help themselves. And the image the reporter evoked fits exactly what happened. Sorta.
I’m sympathetic to Robinson’s larger point. I love a good joke and have made my share of off-handed, colorful comments at work. But I also know, as a manager, that what I say does matter to the people around me and the people I supervise. I can’t and shouldn’t talk at work the way I do with my friends, over drinks.
Robinson used the term “PC”–which, no offense to Robinson, is one of the laziest terms in the world–to describe concern about how comments may be heard by other people and suggested that journalists should be given some leeway in the newsroom since we are asked to “speak truth to power and that they don’t back down when put off.”
The irony, of course, is that fighting against discrimination and inappropriate language is speaking truth to power and refusing to back down. It was those with power in the newsrooms of old that used salty language and inappropriate behavior to maintain their power.
Ask the earliest women in the newsroom, ask the earliest openly-gay reporters in the newsroom or the first Hispanic or Asian-American or Native American or African American journalists in the newsrooms. Being willing to speak to power about the offensive things they heard on a day-to-day basis was a battle between those with control and those without it.
All of this, of course, gets back to how we communicate now. Robinson’s first point was about a Facebook posting. The recent publicity over tweets by Roland Martin and Jason Whitlock show that banter across a cubicle wall is different from posting to 50,000 followers on Twitter, who then can retweet to 50,000 of their close friends.
It’s not PC to suggest that something you say to a friend across the cubicle wall is going to have a different impact than something you post on Facebook or Twitter, where the comment can live forever without any of the relationship or physicality that goes with interpreting comments.
I’ve acknowledged that I wasn’t that offended by Martin’s comments when I first heard him because I’ve seen him on TV and followed his twitter feed. I know the way he talks and, in that context, I could see him saying stupid things while trash talking without intending them to be homophobic.
But the people who knew him weren’t his only audience. The people who watch him on TV weren’t his only audience. The people he was trash-talking with weren’t his only audience. And that’s where he, rightfully, got in trouble.
That’s where the language of the newsroom gets complicated. Yes, we want journalists to use the language well and the nature of newsrooms and workplaces means an off-color comment or inappropriate comment should maybe be tolerated. I’m very sympathetic to Robinson’s largely point that we shouldn’t feel we are bound by soome totalitarian speech police that stifles creativity and intellect.
But we also have to recognize the people you are joking with aren’t the only audience. And if you are going to put it on Facebook or Twitter, then it’s a completely different ball game.