What Nonprofits Can Learn from the News Media

By Sandy Wiegand, Copyeditor and Writer at Joining Vision and Action

The Seattle Times made news in journalism circles recently by changing its style to capitalize the word “Black,” as an adjective, when referring to a “culture, ethnicity or group of people.”

The Times explained that “increasingly grammarians argue that capitalizing it puts it on par with other identifiers of race, such as Native American and African American.” It also pointed to a New York Times opinion piece on the topic by Lori L. Tharps.

The move was bold in that mainstream news organizations and their style guides tend to be rather conservative when it comes to language. As Karen Yin writes in the Conscious Style Guide, “Don’t wait for your style guide to catch up, because it’s waiting for you to demonstrate sufficient usage.”

Many other mainstream news style guides—such as the Associated Press and the New York Times—continue to use the lowercase “black.” *

Why it matters

So, why am I writing about this? What do news organizations have to do with nonprofits, anyway?

Well, like any responsible news organization, nonprofits (and those who work for them, like JVA) are wise to be thoughtful and deliberate in their use of language.

Language helps establish identity. It can deeply affect the way individuals think and feel about themselves, and it can influence the way society perceives entire communities. Being respectful of others’ cultures and identities—and advocating for them—requires knowing and using the words they choose to use to describe themselves (and sometimes, understanding why they capitalize these words).

Looking at how various news organizations decide to describe and identify people and communities can be a good starting point in considering language use.

Other recent changes

For example, even the stylistically conservative Associated Press (AP) had a bit of a racial awakening last year. It added a new section on “race-related coverage,” as discussed in this Columbia Journalism Review article, with guidance on when to use various terms, as well as several style revisions. For example, the AP dropped the hyphens it formerly used in “African American,” “Asian American,” etc., and it called for eliminating use of the word “Caucasian” as a synonym for “white.”

Of course, news outlets do have somewhat different considerations than nonprofits in choosing language. Sure, the media influence society, but as Yin notes, they also reflect it. Because they seek to be perceived as “objective,” news media do not tend to be trailblazers when it comes to language. In fact, that’s one reason to take note when they DO make a significant change.

Next time: Where JVA goes to get answers to our questions on language related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

*Update: In June 2020, The Associated Press updated its style to capitalize “Black” “as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges.” It also changed its style to capitalize “Indigenous” “to refer to original inhabitants of a place. Aboriginal leaders welcomed a new era of Indigenous relations in Australia. Bolivia’s Indigenous peoples represent some 62% of the population.”