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Report to Readers

Report to Readers: The ‘Monitor’ and the ‘n-word’

In a week when the nation is celebrating the second inauguration of our first black president as well as the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., I’ve been thinking about a far less lofty matter of race: the use of what has become known as the “n-word” in the newspaper.

Last week the Monitor carried several stories about a notable local trial. Donald Freese of Concord was accused of a hate crime – the first race-based hate crime prosecuted in Merrimack County – for his role in the assault of a black man that was accompanied by the use of racial epithets. The words were spoken aloud in court last week, which clearly made the witnesses uncomfortable, according to reporter Tricia L. Nadolny. Almost reflexively, when we published stories about the trial, we used
“n-----,” rather than the actual word.

Then on Sunday, Viewpoints columnist Katy Burns wrote a column about the hateful legacy of former Alabama governor George Wallace. She quoted him reflecting on an election loss and vowing that he would never again be “outniggered.” In that case we published the word as he said it, without the dashes.

How to explain the inconsistency? Would readers notice? Would they object?

In fact, I did receive a handful of emails and phone calls over the weekend about it, with a variety of views. A woman from Hooksett was angry that we had allowed Burns to use the word “nigger” in full. A man from Northfield noted what he considered a bewildering double standard, and wondered if our left hand knew what the right hand was up to. A caller wondered why we had shied away from simply using the word in full in our trial coverage, particularly when the entire trial seemed focused on the use of such language.

“This is the real world,” he said. “No need to pretty it up for your readers.”

Burns had asked me whether she’d be allowed to use the word before she wrote her column. The decision was complicated by the fact that the Freese trial had been in the news all week. But I ended up thinking there were some legitimate reasons to treat her opinion column differently than Nadolny’s news articles about the trial.

In general we try not to use language in the newspaper that is broadly considered offensive. If such a word or phrase is somehow critical to a news story, we often end up with dashes. “N-----” is one such example. Once in a while you might also see “s---” or “f---.” This often comes up in the coverage of criminal trials, where the language is raw but important to understand the case. (Readers might recall that it also came up in 2004 when former vice president Dick Cheney told Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy to “f--- yourself” on the floor of the U.S. Senate.)

In the case of the Freese trial, the use of the “n-word” was aimed squarely at an actual individual, Alhaji Kargbo, making it even more harsh than had it been aimed at black people in general. The word wasn’t mentioned just once in the course of the trial or in our trial coverage – but over and over again. And the stories were played prominently on the front page of the newspaper and the homepage of concordmonitor.com.

Burns’s column, on the other hand, was published on the front of Viewpoints, the fourth section of the Sunday paper. She was writing about history – how much has changed and how much has not. The use of Wallace’s full word – “outniggered” – was meant in part to shock, to make readers think about what sort of language was in use in the mid-20th century versus what is acceptable today. And more practically speaking, writing “outn-------” would no doubt have been mystifying to most readers.

In the trial coverage, I suppose, we were shielding readers as well as Kargbo himself from such hurtful language. But in the case of the Burns column, what or whom would we have protected by sanitizing the language in a column with a history lesson at its core?

To me, the shock of the Freese trial was that young men in our community still have the word “nigger” at their disposal. Who talks or thinks like that in this day and age? The shock of the George Wallace column was that such racism was still part of the regular give-and-take of politics.

This was a subjective decision of course; different editors might easily have come to different conclusions about the language in both the news coverage and the opinion column. With luck, we won’t have to revisit the issue again soon.

(Felice Belman can be reached at 369-3370 or fbelman@cmonitor.com.)

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