Earlier this week, Vox published a piece on the complicated nature of the term “BIPOC” — its original intentions in centering Black and Indigenous people in the United States, versus its often indiscriminate usage. Linguists deandre miles-hercules and Jonathan Rosa raised concerns about white progressives being more caught up in using the “right word” rather than learning terms in their specific contexts and nuances.
Erin Logan, a Black journalist at the Los Angeles Times, told The Objective last month that she felt a similar apprehension regarding the wave of newsrooms moving to capitalize B in Black. While it’s a significant and long-overdue step, some Black journalists fear that the change to capital B will allow their colleagues to avoid engaging deeper in the structural racism embedded both inside and outside of their newsrooms. In other words, that language in journalism will shift without newsrooms understanding the problems that the language speaks to.
One person who has been grappling with this issue is the editor of the Diversity Style Guide, Rachele Kanigel. The guide is a resource for media professionals containing terms and guidance on covering the nuances of race, gender, sexuality, mental health, and more.
Currently, Kanigel serves as a professor and chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University. Before teaching, she was a reporter for 15 years at local newspapers like the Oakland Tribune and the News & Observer, where she largely wrote about health and medicine.
Kanigel is a cisgender, white Jewish woman who says that the combination of her privilege and connection to historic discrimination influenced her work on the style guide. Much of the guide cites the work of other groups, such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Center on Disability and Journalism, and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. I spoke with Kanigel to understand more about how she navigates research and attribution in her work, as well as how she believes word choice can shape coverage.
The conversation is edited for length and clarity.
Isabelle Yan: I guess my first question is pretty basic. What is the Diversity Style Guide?
Rachele Kanigel: OK, so the Diversity Style Guide, which is a website and a book of the same name, is a guide to help journalists think about language and maneuver through the changing media landscape. A lot of terms are changing now, and there’s also a lot of loaded meanings to some of the words that we use.
I think each journalist, each person sees the world through their own background and experiences. And so things that might be really obvious to one person might be completely unfamiliar to another person. The book has a somewhat different goal in that it builds on the work of the online style guide. The online style guide is just 700-750 terms, and the terms are taken from about 20 or 25 different style guides and organizations and media resources.
IY: How did the Diversity Style Guide come together?
RK: I teach at San Francisco State University in the journalism department. For many years, the department had a Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism (CIIJ), which was around for about 25 years. The idea was to improve the journalism pipeline from the classroom to the newsroom. One of the projects of this center, probably starting around the mid-1990s, was a diversity style guide. At that time, it was just a bunch of terms taken from four or five different style guides. I think one of them was the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) style guide, the NABJ style guide, and a few others. It was posted on a website and it was a PDF, but it wasn’t that well known.
As a faculty member, I was an interim director of the Center for a couple of semesters. While I was doing that, I found this old style guide and thought, well, “wouldn’t it be cool if this was like a searchable website?” And I also knew that there were a lot more resources now. So I applied for a grant, and kind of took that original diversity style guide and expanded it, modernized it, made it searchable, made it much more accessible.
Once I finished that [in 2016], I started feeling like, well, there are these terms and you can talk about the terms. But there’s a lot of context, a complexity and nuance to using these terms. And I felt that simply this diversity style guide with these terms wasn’t really enough. So then I decided to write/edit a book that really gets people thinking about the deeper issues at the heart of covering a diverse world.
IY: Before that, you worked in journalism, correct? How would you say your experiences working for papers such as the Oakland Tribune or the Contra Costa Times have informed your work on the Diversity Style Guide?
RK: I was a daily newspaper reporter for about 15 years, and all of the communities that I covered were very diverse. For example, there was one time I did a story on a kid who died, and his organs ended up going to seven different people. His family was Spanish-speaking, so I used an interpreter to interview his family. And then there were people from other ethnic groups who were the recipients of these organs. There were also cultural beliefs, religious beliefs about organ transplantation. And so that was one of the things that kind of got me thinking as a reporter that you really need to listen and understand different values. In covering medicine, ethnicity and race come up a lot. Mental health, substance use, suicide — all of these things have a lot of cultural implications and nuances that I was constantly needing to learn about.
IY: As the style guide’s editor, what is your process for picking out terms to include and then coming up with their descriptions on the website and in the book? I know that some terms are actually user-submitted.
RK: I started by collecting all the different media guides that I could find — all the ethnic news organizations, media organizations. The next thing I did is get permission to bring them all together. Then I went through and looked at the definitions, and for the most part I use the definitions verbatim. But sometimes I felt like they were out-of-date, or there was more to be added. So in that case, I would put in parentheses or in brackets, “added material or changed material.”
When I had more than 700 terms, I started to think, well, here’s something that’s left out, or here’s something that I should cover. I would look for a reputable resource, and if I couldn’t find a resource, I would do my own research and come up with a definition for the term. Then I launched the guide, and people started saying, well, what about this and what about that?
Right now, there’s a lot of change happening just in the last few weeks. For example, the Associated Press and NABJ came out encouraging people to capitalize the B in Black when used as a racial group. I had been recommending that for years, so I was really happy to see that. But I’m gonna be updating [the guide] to talk about some of the changes that these organizations have made.
IY: On the Diversity Style Guide website, it explicitly states that it’s “not a guide to being politically correct.” Why did you feel the need to clarify this?
RK: Well, when I would talk to people about this project, I had a lot of people, even friends of mine, saying, “Oh, so it’s basically a guide to being politically correct.”
And for me, it’s very much an issue about being fair and being sensitive to different communities, but also representing people and communities accurately. If, for example, you were writing about a nonbinary person and you misgender them, then you lose credibility with your sources. You lose credibility with your readers who understand this person. I actually have this little anecdote in the book where I talk about my brother Robert. So Robert, you can call him Robert. You can call him Rob. His wife calls him Robbie. And my family, we used to call him Roberto, and all of these names would work. But if you call him Bob, he’ll say, “no, that’s not my name.” And then if somebody calls him Bob again, he gets really upset because that’s not who he is.
I think the same is true of communities or, you know, certain ethnic groups or groups of people with certain disabilities, for example. There’s been some consensus, or there’s been some discussion of, how do we want to be called, how do we want to be represented? And if you go against that, then the journalist is not doing their job and is losing face with their sources and with their audiences.
IY: Where do you see the Diversity Style Guide in the ongoing, broader conversation about journalistic objectivity or neutrality in newsrooms?
RK: You know, I was a journalist in the 80s and 90s, and it was a very different time. There was a lot about objectivity and about getting all sides of the story, and I grew up in that tradition. I’ve had some really interesting conversations in recent weeks about changing ideas in newsrooms. And, you know, as a journalism educator, I’m really thinking about, how should we be training journalists? We’ve been talking a lot about how we cover crime and police. Traditionally, if you were writing about a crime, you try to get the police report. That’s an authoritative source. Then you look at the police report for the George Floyd killing, and you look at the video of the George Floyd killing, and they’re like completely different realities. And it really makes you question the authority of something like a police report.
As far as neutrality and objectivity, another thing that we’ve been talking about is getting multiple points of view. So that’s something I teach my students all the time. If there’s a crime, you want to get the police, you want to get someone who is there, you want to get the victim if possible, you want to get the suspect. But if you start writing about institutional, systematic racism, then you start thinking about…do you really have to get all sides of this story? If you’re writing about a racist incident, obviously you talked to the people who were the victims of this incident. You’re talking to maybe experts about it. But then do you have to get the racist points of view, you know what I mean? So I think that one thing that’s changing for a lot of us in journalism — there are certain things that are just right, and there are certain things that are just wrong.
I recently relistened to an episode of Code Switch from NPR, and it was about whether NPR could call something that Trump said “racist.” I think that there’s new understandings about the words “racism” and “racist,” and more media organizations are willing to label things that are clearly racist now. For a long time, news organizations were saying that comments the president made, for example, were “racially tinged” or had “racist undertones,” that kind of thing. […] That’s one of my projects for the summer, is to update the guide and look at some of those kinds of words [“racism” and “racist”] and try to give more guidance.
IY: So when we’re talking about the Diversity Style Guide, it is both a website and a book in your name, but you also acknowledge that it draws from a bunch of style and media reference guides from a lot of different media organizations. How do you provide attributions or citations within the guide?
RK: The website includes where the information came from. If you look at a definition, it will link back to the original reference. If there’s multiple references, it will link back to multiple references. Sometimes what I’ve done is combined information from two or three different sources, so people can see exactly where it came from. In the book, I did interviews with about 50 or more people from different organizations. And then each chapter, [both] the chapters that I wrote and the chapters that other people wrote, quoted other sources. I think both the book and the website draw from a lot of different sources, and credit all those sources pretty openly.
IY: Do you give credit to the individuals who developed these best practices in other style and media reference guides?
RK: No, because usually I don’t know who developed them. And sometimes, some of these guides are 15 or 20 years old. But if the guide itself says who developed them, then you’ll see that.
IY: How do you reconcile the inherent power dynamics within attribution, between who is named in the guide or the book and who remains nameless?
RK: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I guess I gave credit whenever I knew who was involved. But I’m looking, for example, at one of the terms I quoted from the Religion Stylebook, which is put out by the Religion Newswriters Association, and the Religion Stylebook doesn’t say the names of the individuals who worked on it. So it’s kind of hard to know who worked on it. These guides by the Michigan State University School of Journalism are also produced by a large number of people, and each individual guide lists the people who were involved in them. But, you know, probably if you looked at how many people have actually contributed something to the Diversity Style Guide, it would be in the hundreds, because there’s so many people who were involved. And it’s true that some of these people are nameless.
IY: The “About” page on the Diversity Style Guide [website] includes your professional achievements, but it doesn’t actually include any information about your own sets of identities. I was just wondering, what sort of identities do you bring to the table in terms of race, gender, anything that’s kind of covered in the guide itself, if you’re willing to share?
RK: Sure. So I’m white. I’m a woman. I’m Jewish. I’m … what else would I say that I am? I’m a Californian, I live in a city, I go by female pronouns.
IY: How do you think the identities that you bring to the project inform your work on the Diversity Style Guide?
RK: I think that as a white person with, frankly, a lot of privilege — I grew up in a middle class family, and I didn’t experience racism — it makes me feel a little bit naive and a little bit like, I really want to understand this stuff. I really want to use the right words. I really want to be careful and not misstep, misidentify, misgender people. So I’m very much aware of the privilege that I come from. I also come from a people who have been discriminated against for a long time. I personally haven’t very much, but I sort of have that in my DNA.
I don’t pretend that I know or have experienced all this stuff. But I understand the world we live in is based on a very damaging system of Othering, and I’m trying to do something to combat that. I think that everybody — whether they come from a place of privilege and power, or if they come from a place of oppression or an experience of racism — every single person isn’t aware of all the nuances and complexities of being, you know, different races, different genders, different sexual orientations, different identities. And so we all need to learn. I guess I try to come at this with humility, and with a sense that I don’t know about this, I want to learn about this. And I want to be using language that’s respectful and accurate.
IY: Is there anything else about the Diversity Style Guide that I didn’t ask you about that you think is important for folks to understand?
RK: Yeah, a couple of things. One is that this area is constantly changing. And even now I look at the website and the book, and I see things I want to update. I think that these were produced at a certain period of time. But the beauty of the website is that I can keep responding to changes, so I think that’s really important.
What I would love to see is more of a dialogue between audiences and media creators, because I think that it’s easy for media creators to kind of be in this bubble, and to just keep doing things the way they’re doing things and to not see that society is constantly changing. So I think the more that audiences and sources can be calling journalists out on this stuff and to demand that the B in Black be capitalized, for example, or that journalists avoid using phrases like committing suicide, for example…if people really speak out and let journalists and other media professionals know the impact of their words and the impact of misrepresentation, the better off we’re all going to be. Journalists need to listen. Audiences need to speak out. And I’m hoping that will all come to a better place.
Isabelle Yan is a contributing writer for The Objective. This piece was edited by Marlee Baldridge, Gabe Schneider, and Jaz Twersky. Copy editing was done by Hanaa’ Tameez.
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