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Images & Voices of Hope | December 2, 2020

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New diversity style guide aims to be a dynamic resource for media practitioners

New diversity style guide aims to be a dynamic resource for media practitioners



By Allison Griner

Allison Griner is a freelance journalist and a 2013-2014 fellow with the International Reporting Program. Follow her on Twitter at @alligriner.




It had been over a decade since the News Watch Diversity Style Guide received a thorough revamp, and journalist Rachele Kanigel was convinced that one was well overdue.

So much had changed since 2002, when the style guide was last published. In the past year alone, the Supreme Court ruled marriage a fundamental right for two people, regardless of gender. And the recent shootings of unarmed black men had spurred outrage and protest from Missouri to Maryland.

The more Kanigel thought about it, the more she realized that the new style guide had to be more than just a glossary of terms; it had to be a springboard for ever-changing thought and analysis. And Kanigel found that she was in a unique position to make that change.

Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University. In 2012, she became acting chair of the university’s Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, which releases the News Watch Diversity Style Guide.

Her idea for a new and improved style guide gradually turned into a book contract. Her upcoming project, The Diversity Style Guide, will include an expanded, updated glossary, as well as chapters discussing how best to report on different communities.

The need for guides like hers is “greater than ever,” she said in an interview with ivoh. She found that out firsthand when she started to dive into her research.

Kanigel said she found fewer resources published after the late ’90s and early 2000s. She surmises that journalism’s changing business model and recent job losses have diverted attention away from diversity studies. “There’s been this whole revolution in journalism, and I think these issues have kind of been put on the back-burner in a lot of newsrooms.”

But was Kanigel the right person to champion a new diversity style guide? Kanigel herself had some doubts. “I’m white, I’m a woman, I’m Jewish, and I don’t have any disabilities,” she said. “I have to admit, there are times when I think, ‘Well, what the hell am I doing writing this book?'”

Kanigel sees her identity as an advantage in some respects. “I think I can identify with people who don’t have certain experiences and are looking for guidance,” she said. “I’m coming at it from the perspective that, no matter who you are, no matter what you are, you have lived certain experiences, and you haven’t lived certain experiences.”


Rachele Kanigel

But to make sure she is accurately representing certain issues, Kanigel is approaching experts to help her. She said she has asked organizations such as GLAAD, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ), to provide insight for the book.

These groups are helping Kanigel address the questions central to her handbook. What mistakes are journalists making? What can journalists do better? Sometimes the experts provide drastically conflicting answers.

But that’s okay, Kanigel said. Her handbook “is not the Bible.” But she hopes it will be used as a resource to stir debate. “What I’d really love is for it to be a living book, in that people are using it to think and discuss these issues, rather than just following everything that’s in there.”

Kanigel believes that, if newsrooms were truly diverse, reporters could be resources for one another, offering each other tips and education.

A Pew Research Center study out this week found that diversity is lowest in smaller news outlets. Some news organizations have said they’re actively working to recruit for more diversity, including ProPublica, which published a story last week about what it’s doing to diversity its newsroom.

In its latest census, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) found that the percentage of racial minority journalists remained “relatively stable” in 2014, at only 12.76 percent. And yet, American demographics are changing rapidly. In 2014, the U.S. Census projected that a majority of Americans would belong to a racial minority by 2044.

“As we become a more diverse America, we need to have a better grip on these issues,” Kanigel said.

While Kanigel intends to investigate more prevalent notions of diversity — such as race, religion, gender and physical disability — she also wants to explore emerging categories like mental health, substance abuse, and suicide.

But with cultural norms constantly evolving, breeding a vast spectrum of new words and phrases, how can an author like Kanigel keep up? Kanigel’s plan is to publish the book’s glossary online, through the Society of Professional Journalists website, where it can be continually updated. The full print edition is anticipated for release in 2017, through the publishing company Wiley.

Kanigel is already a couple chapters deep into her draft, and she intends to finish five by September. She is filling its pages with recent examples where journalists could have used language more sensitively. Only recently did she finish the chapter on LGBT issues.

“I was looking at the coverage of the Supreme Court decision in June, and everyone was using ‘same-sex marriage’ and ‘gay marriage,'” she said. “And there are a lot of people who find those terms offensive because it’s like saying, ‘Well, there’s regular marriage, and then there’s same-sex marriage.'”

But some examples are far more personal for Kanigel. In 2013, Sasha Fleischman, the child of Kanigel’s close friend, was attacked while dozing off on a bus in Oakland, Calif. A teenager, egged on by two of his friends, put a lighter to Fleischman’s skirt. It burst into flames. The attack made national headlines.

Kanigel puzzled over the articles and their depictions of Fleischman’s gender. Fleischman is genderqueer and identifies neither as male nor female. Instead, Fleischman prefers to be identified by the pronoun “they.”

“It was really interesting to see how the news organizations were struggling because Sasha doesn’t use male or female pronouns,” Kanigel said. She noted that even The New York Times didn’t use the pronoun “they,” opting instead to refer to Fleischman by their first name.

For Kanigel, using “they” was not just a matter of sensitivity. It was a matter of accuracy, of journalism’s commitment to veracity. “For example, if you are calling Sasha a ‘he,’ and they don’t consider themselves a ‘he,’ then you’re being incorrect. If you’re using a term that is offensive to people, then you’re alienating readers. You’re alienating sources,” Kanigel said.

It’s not always easy to figure out what words to use, as Kanigel herself can testify. She said it took her years of mistakes before she learned to call Sasha “they.” And it was only when Kanigel started writing this book that she realized the phrases “same-sex marriage” and “gay marriage” could be offensive to some people.

But journalists still have a responsibility to think critically about the language they use, Kanigel said. “I think the journalists who are writing without sensitivity and without accuracy are not doing a good job of covering the communities that they’re covering.”

Publications should still take into account their audiences’ “familiarity with certain terms and certain nuances,” Kanigel said. After all, concepts like “cisgender” and “marriage equality” are still fairly new to many people. Either way, Kanigel warned, language choices can have consequences.

As Kanigel continues to put together The Diversity Style Guide, she is reaching out to more and more people to share their stories and input. She said she usually gets one of two reactions to her project.

“Some people say, ‘Oh wow, that’s really cool. That’s really needed.’ And other people say, ‘Oh, it’s basically a guide on how to be politically correct,'” Kanigel said. “What I try to do when I get the second reaction is say, ‘It’s not really about politically correctness. It’s about accuracy.'”

Ultimately, while Kanigel would love to see her Diversity Style Guide on every journalist’s bookshelf, she said she’s happy so long as it ignites conversations. And with those conversations may come greater sensitivity and accuracy in the media.