An odd and very remote encounter with racism. Or was it? To be continued.

I’ve got a ton of good stuff to blog about, and I hope to get to some items over the next few days. Right now, though, I’ve got to say something about a weird experience I had yesterday.

I was on the train back to Boston, cleaning up the transcript of an interview I’d done in New Jersey, where I was reporting on a nonprofit news organization called NJ Spotlight News. I paid more than I usually do so that there would be a human set of eyes looking it over before sending it back. The quality was excellent — but there was a section in which my subject and I were talking about race. Every reference to “White” was uppercase and every reference to “black” was lowercase.

If you’ve been following changes in news style over the past few years, you know that some pretty significant shifts have been implemented. The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Boston Globe all decided to start uppercasing Black but not white. Here’s how Globe editor Brian McGrory explained the paper’s reasoning in January 2020:

Effective immediately, we’re updating the Globe stylebook to put the word Black in uppercase when it is used to describe a person’s race. After consulting with leaders in the Black community, we’re making this change to recognize that the word has evolved from a description of a person’s skin color to signify a race and culture, and as such, deserves uppercase treatment in the same way that other races — Latino being one example — are capitalized. Unless otherwise requested by a person we’re writing about, we’ll use Black, which is considered to be more inclusive, rather than African-American.

Why not “white”? As the AP described it, “white people in general have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

The Washington Post took a different position, uppercasing both “Black” and “White,” explaining, “Stories involving race show that White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” That’s fine, and I suspect that at some point others may follow suit.

But referring to uppercase White people and lowercase black people is something you’d expect from the racist dark reaches of the internet. I was kind of startled to see it come from a reputable transcription service — and no, I’m not going to name them, so don’t ask. I might let them know (now I’ll have this blog post to send them), and if I get a response, I’ll tell you what they said.

The AP will no longer publish the names of suspects charged with minor crimes

The Associated Press, in a long-overdue move, has announced that it will stop reporting the names of suspects who are arrested and charged with minor crimes. The worldwide news agency says that not only do those names lack newsworthiness but the lack of follow-up means that it would never be reported if they were acquitted. John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards, writes:

These minor stories, which only cover an arrest, have long lives on the internet. AP’s broad distribution network can make it difficult for the suspects named in such items to later gain employment or just move on in their lives.

The AP will also “stop publishing stories driven mainly by a particularly embarrassing mugshot,” he adds.

The AP throws Emily Wilder under the bus — again

And now The Associated Press has made a bad situation worse — responding to the petition by its own journalists about the firing of Emily Wilder by saying it will embark on a months-long review of its social media policy. Worse, the AP pulled Wilder out from beneath the bus so it could throw her under it again. The AP’s David Bauder reports:

The news leaders said sharing more information was difficult: the company does not publicly discuss personnel issues to protect the privacy of staff.

“We can assure you that much of the coverage and commentary does not accurately portray a difficult decision we did not make lightly,” the memo said. It did not make clear what information was reported inaccurately.

Good Lord.

Also worth noting is that the AP’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who’ll soon take over the top editor’s job at The Washington Post, says she had nothing to do with Wilder’s firing and sounds disinclined to intervene. According to NPR’s David Folkenflik, “She tells NPR as a result [of her pending move to the Post] that she had handed off her duties and had nothing to do with this decision.”

The AP overreacted in firing a young journalist. It’s not too late to undo the damage.

Emily Wilder. Photo via LinkedIn.

The Associated Press’ decision to fire a just-graduated college student because of her pro-Palestinian social media posts raises some important issues for those of us who teach journalism.

The AP claims that it ended Emily Wilder’s stint as a news associate in Phoenix solely because of her tweets during two weeks on the job. That would be bad enough. After all, Wilder is 22 and at the very beginning of her career. In what world would it not make more sense to sit her down, explain what she was doing wrong, and let her off with a warning? Unfortunately, based on the evidence, it seems likely that her posts on behalf of Palestinian rights back when she was a Stanford student were an issue as well, especially when an online right-wing mob came after her.

Students in my ethics classes talked about Twitter a lot during the past year. I found the case of Alexis Johnson to be particularly useful in illustrating the dilemma that journalists face. Johnson, you may recall, was banned from reporting on Black Lives Matter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after she tweeted a harmless joke comparing littering at a Kenny Chesney concert to the trash left behind at racial-justice protests.

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Some of my students were adamant that journalists should be free to tweet what they like — that they have a First Amendment right to express themselves on their own time just like anyone else. What I tried to convey to them was that Johnson’s situation was a lot more complicated than that. No, journalists may not tweet anything they like. Straight-news reporters can’t tweet their opinions about people and issues they cover.

The problem with the Post-Gazette wasn’t that Johnson had a right to tweet anything as she saw fit, but that her tweet was innocuous. It seemed pretty clear that she was being punished because she was Black and because she had a mind of her own. The absurdity of what happened to her led to an uproar at the paper and in the community. Johnson eventually left, and today she’s in a high-profile position at Vice News.

So the message for Emily Wilder is no, you can’t tweet just anything. And though the Phoenix bureau was as far as you can get from the conflict in the Middle East, the AP is a worldwide news organization. Management is within its rights to insist that its reporters not express opinions about issues in the news. The problem was its absurd overreaction, which had all the appearances of a craven attempt to appease its critics on the right.

Which leads me to a more difficult issue — the question of whether someone’s social media activities as a student should be held against them when they enter the work world. My first instinct is to say no. How careful are 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds supposed to be when commenting on the news? Even if they aspire to work for a news organization, that’s in the future. They should be judged by their performance on the job, not by the views they expressed before being hired.

But I’m not sure we live in that world anymore. Disproportionate though the Wilder firing may have been, the AP is one of the largest news organizations in the world, reportedly employing about 3,300 people. I don’t think I can tell my students that they should continue to tweet controversial opinions without any fear of the consequences. What if they have a chance to get a job with the AP some day? Or another news organization with a retrograde social-media policy but that is otherwise a place they would like to work?

Few observers seem to think the AP got this right. A group of AP employees is circulating a petition calling the agency to task. Among other things, they say:

We strongly disapprove of the way the AP has handled the firing of Emily Wilder and its dayslong silence internally. We demand more clarity from the company about why Wilder was fired. It remains unclear — to Wilder herself as well as staff at large — how she violated the social media policy while employed by the AP….

Wilder was a young journalist, unnecessarily harmed by the AP’s handling and announcement of its firing of her. We need to know that the AP would stand behind and provide resources to journalists who are the subject of smear campaigns and online harassment. As journalists who cover contentious subjects, we are often the target of people unhappy with scrutiny. What happens when they orchestrate a smear campaign targeting another one of us?

The AP’s own account of what happened says that Wilder was terminated “for violations of its social media policy that took place after she became an employee.” But Wilder herself told David Bauder, the AP reporter who wrote the story, that she believed her firing had more to do with the harassment campaign against her, which was mainly based on her more caustic tweets from when she was a student. And she told Jeremy Barr of The Washington Post: “This was a result of the campaign against me. To me, it feels like AP folded to the ridiculous demands and cheap bullying of organizations and individuals.”

As it happens, the incoming executive editor of the Post, Sally Buzbee, is currently the executive editor of the AP. It’s unimaginable that she was involved in the firing of a low-level employee like Wilder. But she’s certainly seen what a mess this has devolved into, and it’s well within her power to do something about it. The AP committed a serious misstep, and failing to address it isn’t going to make it go away.

My message to my students remains the same. There are a number of activities that journalists simply can’t take part in, such as making campaign contributions, putting a candidate’s sign on their lawn, becoming an activist on a contentious social issue — or tweeting opinions that they would never be allowed to express in the regular course of doing their job.

And as much as I would like to think that they shouldn’t be held to account for what they said as students, we have all entered a new reality. Rehiring Emily Wilder would be a positive step toward reassuring journalism students everywhere that common sense still exists, and that a great news organization like the AP isn’t going to be intimidated into doing the wrong thing.

The Washington Post chooses its first female executive editor

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Knight Foundation.

The Washington Post has a new executive editor — Sally Buzbee, currently the executive editor and senior vice president at The Associated Press. Of note: Post owner Jeff Bezos got involved in making the choice, and Paul Farhi writes that Buzbee was chosen at least in part because of her international experience.

Bezos and the Post’s top executives see world coverage as the next step in their competition with The New York Times, recently setting up news hubs in London and Seoul, South Korea, in order to give the paper 24-hour coverage.

Buzbee is the Post’s first female executive editor. Here’s the first question that springs to my mind: The AP is well-known as our most buttoned-down straight-news organization. The Post’s recently retired editor, Marty Baron, succeeded in straddling those old-school values with newer forms of journalism characterized by voice, attitude and “swagger,” to use a word that Bezos himself likes. Will Buzbee be able to adapt?

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AP obit of Larry King leaves out his ties to Russia

Larry King. Photo (cc) 2017 by Gage Skidmore.

This Associated Press obituary of Larry King makes no mention of his spending his waning years working for the Russian propaganda outlet RT. But RT itself doesn’t hold back, even touting a 2019 interview King did with George Papadopoulos, a figure in the Russia scandal who was pardoned by Donald Trump just before he left the White House.

We all got a kick out of King during his CNN days, but let’s not revise history.

The Globe, the Red Sox and a long-ago story of racism and sexual abuse

Now here’s an interesting media twist. Michael Rezendes, who did so much to expose Cardinal Bernard Law’s involvement in the Catholic Church’s pedophile-priest crisis when he was a member of the Spotlight Team at The Boston Globe, has written a new report about sexual abuse — this one involving the Red Sox, whose principal owner, John Henry, is also the owner of the Globe.

Rezendes, who’s retired from the Globe, now works for The Associated Press. His story was published on the Globe’s website today at 3:40 a.m. and presumably will be in Wednesday’s print edition.

The report is about former Red Sox clubhouse manager Don Fitzpatrick, who for years preyed on young Black clubhouse employees. Fitzpatrick left the Sox in 1991 — 10 years before Henry bought the team — and pleaded guilty to charges of sexual battery in 2002.

Although Fitzpatrick was long gone before the dawn of the Henry era, the team remains entangled in Fitzpatrick’s web. Victims are seeking compensation, suggesting that it’s hypocritical for the Red Sox to come to terms publicly with their history of racism (some of it pretty recent) while failing to reach out to Fitzpatrick’s victims.

One of Fitzpatrick’s alleged victims, Gerald Armstrong, told Rezendes, “Now would be a good time for the Red Sox to show everyone they mean what they say.”

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The Boston Globe embraces uppercase ‘Black’ to describe race and culture

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory sent this email to his staff last week, and it is just now wending its way in my direction:

Effective immediately, we’re updating the Globe stylebook to put the word Black in uppercase when it is used to describe a person’s race. After consulting with leaders in the Black community, we’re making this change to recognize that the word has evolved from a description of a person’s skin color to signify a race and culture, and as such, deserves uppercase treatment in the same way that other races — Latino being one example — are capitalized. Unless otherwise requested by a person we’re writing about, we’ll use Black, which is considered to be more inclusive, rather than African-American.

This is a good, progressive move. Will the Associated Press follow suit?

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A note on style

From the time that I began writing Media Nation in 2005, I’ve been following the Associated Press Stylebook. I don’t particularly like it. In many ways, it’s the least common denominator of styles. But it is what we teach at Northeastern, and I thought I should model good behavior.

Now I’m moving on. As some of you know, I’m writing regular commentaries for WGBH News, which uses the Chicago Manual of Style (more or less). Among other things, that means italics for the titles of newspapers, books, movies, and the like; Oxford (serial) commas; and an after an s apostrophe, as in Fred Jones’s car rather than Jones’. (No italics for the titles of reference books, in case you were wondering.)

I happen to prefer these differences. Chicago is what we used at The Boston Phoenix, and what is used at most magazines. More to the point, the switch will make it easier for me to repost my WGBH stuff to Media Nation, which I do for archival purposes, and for the folks at WGBH to scrape Media Nation. I also occasionally write for The Huffington Post, whose style guidelines are similar to those at WGBH.

Now I’ll just have to remember the differences between Chicago and AP when I return to teaching next year.

Drip, drip, drip: The third person’s name is leaking out

Who is the Rhode Island person being questioned by authorities in the alleged terrorist plot that ended in the shooting death of a Boston man on Tuesday? So far, at least, most of the local media aren’t saying. But already a Rhode Island television station has breached the wall of silence, so you can be sure we’ll all know soon enough.

According to The Associated Press and numerous other news reports, police confronted Usaama Rahim on Tuesday as Rahim was preparing to carry out a plot to behead a police officer. Rahim was killed by police after he reportedly refused to drop a military-style knife. Rahim, a relative named David Wright and the Rhode Island man met recently on a beach in that state, according to news accounts.

On Wednesday’s 10 p.m. news on WBZ-TV (the Channel 38 version), we were told that the station would not identify the man unless he is charged with a crime. The Boston Globe takes the same stance this morning: “The Globe is not naming the third person Rahim and Wright allegedly met with because he has not been charged. But after Rahim’s shooting, officials searched his Warwick, R.I., home on Aspinet Drive.”

The Boston Herald refers to the man only as “a third unidentified person.” WFXT-TV (Channel 25) informs us, “His name was being withheld by authorities.”

The Providence Journal takes us one step closer, publishing not just the street he lives on but his exact address. The Journal also quotes a neighbor who calls the person of interest “a nice young man” who has cerebral palsy, walks with a limp and works at a gas station.

Using a reverse address directory, I found the name of a man whose age bracket (18-24) made him seem likely. So I Googled his name and discovered that, in fact, WJAR-TV (Channel 10) of Providence had already identified him as the person of interest. The story includes this: “At one point, according to a neighbor, he was the area paperboy. Within the last few years, though, neighbors claim he changed his appearance. He grew a long beard, wore robes, and prayed often outside.”

A search for the man’s name on Google News suggests that WJAR is the only news organization so far that has identified the man, though I can’t be sure. I will not identify him, nor will I link to the WJAR story.

The question is whether this is ethical journalism. I say it’s not, and it’s clear that other news organizations saw no problem with holding back on naming him in these early, confusing days of the investigation. What you gain by being first with his name is minuscule; what you lose if he turns out to be uninvolved could be considerable depending on the circumstances.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.