Mainstream media in the United States have long had an aversion to calling out racism where it exists, instead opting for euphemisms like “white resentment,” “race-based appeal,” or “race-baiting,” among numerous others. This problem has reemerged in reporting on the protests against police brutality sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, and especially in recent stories about President Donald Trump repeatedly using or pushing racist rhetoric in tweets and speeches.
The issue gained attention in mainstream media multiple times in 2019, including when NBC News reportedly told staffers not to characterize comments Rep. Steve King (R-IA) made in an interview with The New York Times as racist. King -- also known for tweeting in 2017 that “culture and demographics are our destiny” and “we can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies” -- had told the Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” NBC later reversed the decision.
A few months later, The Associated Press Stylebook published the following guidance in its entry on race-related coverage: “Does the statement or action meet the definition of racism? That assessment need not involve examining the motivation of the person who spoke or acted, which is a separate issue that may not be related to how the statement or action itself can be characterized. … Avoid racially charged, racially motivated or racially tinged, euphemisms which convey little meaning.” The AP also added that racism, when called out, should be properly contextualized.
The AP’s updated guidance models a better approach by asking reporters to call out racism where it exists and explain it in context, so that readers can better understand why a statement or system should be called racist. Using euphemisms diminishes the impact on the reader and can be particularly harmful when used to politely characterize the racist statements of those in power.
Unfortunately, a year later, many mainstream publications are still using these euphemisms.
Mainstream outlets have had a hard time consistently calling out racism, especially Trump’s racism, and their coverage can be wildly inconsistent. The Washington Post, for instance, published a July 4 article with the headline “Trump’s push to amplify racism unnerves Republicans who have long enabled him.” The text gave further context that “Trump’s unyielding push to preserve Confederate symbols and the legacy of white domination, crystallized by his harsh denunciation of the racial justice movement, … has unnerved Republicans who have long enabled him but now fear losing power and forever associating their party with his racial animus.” However, a few weeks earlier, the same reporters had put out an article about his rally in Tulsa that passively noted, “The president uttered a racially insensitive term in describing the ‘many’ alternate names for the novel coronavirus that originated in China.”
Here are three articles recently published at major news outlets that have fallen prey to the euphemism trap in reporting on the president’s racist behavior.
The New York Times can’t decide which euphemism it wants to use for Trump’s racism
The New York Times uses its own internal style guide -- not the AP’s -- and it has changed how it frames race as recently as this year. But the paper is still refusing to call out instances of racism in major news stories. Maggie Haberman’s July 6 article “Trump Adds to Playbook of Stoking White Fear and Resentment” not only uses a euphemism for racism right in the headline, but it also went through a number of revisions seemingly intended to address the use of even more blatant euphemisms in the original article.
The final product has euphemisms for racism or racist terms in the headline, subheadline, and the body of the article, including “white fear and resentment” and “nicknames that are offensive to Native Americans.”
In one instance, Haberman describes the president’s racist behavior simply as “his focus on racial and cultural flash points”:
For many Republicans who are watching the president’s impact on Senate races with alarm, his focus on racial and cultural flash points — and not on the surge of the coronavirus in many states — is distressing.
The “racial and cultural flash points” the article mentions Trump is focused on include but are not limited to him retweeting a video with one of his supporters yelling a white supremacist slogan, attacking the only Black race car driver in NASCAR, and expressing displeasure that an American sports team may change its name or logos that disparage Native Americans.
The article does acknowledge that systemic racism exists, calling it “entrenched,” but then refuses to directly call the president’s statements racist. Instead, it notes that Trump tweeted “a phrase that critics say is racist.”
In another example, the article correctly notes, “Mr. Trump’s inflammatory behavior shows how out of step he is with shifting national sentiment on racial justice.” But Haberman downplays Trump’s behavior by describing it as just “inflammatory” -- again getting close but dodging the word “racist.”
Earlier in the piece, Haberman talks about Trump attacking the only Black NASCAR driver and defending the Confederate flag:
The remarks are part of a pattern. Almost every day in the last two weeks, Mr. Trump has sought to stoke white fear and resentment, portraying himself as a protector of an old order that polls show much of America believes perpetuates entrenched racism and wants to move beyond.
Trump’s attacks in this context are textbook examples of racist tropes and talking points. Haberman’s article would be clearer if she simply explained that he was playing up racist ideas or being racist.
The Washington Post uses an offhand euphemism to describe Trump’s racist campaign tactics
In the July 9 Washington Post article titled “Trump who? Senate GOP candidates in tight races avoid any mention of the president in campaign ads,” reporter Seung Min Kim gives an overview of how “Republican senators up for reelection this fall in tight races have been unwilling to publicly criticize Trump as he continues to fan racial tensions and struggles to control a pandemic that has devastated the economy and killed close to 130,000 Americans.”
The Washington Post, like the New York Times, uses its own style guide, but the paper has called out the president's racism before, which makes the inconsistencies here odd.
The problem with this euphemism is that Trump has been consistently racist, and he wasn’t just fanning racial tensions when he defended Confederate monuments and openly ridiculed people protesting for racial justice. In fact, the phrase “fan racial tensions” actually links to another Post article that correctly calls the president’s behavior a “push to amplify racism.”
The article overall discusses GOP candidates avoiding embracing or criticizing Trump because they don’t want to be perceived as actively for or against the president. But the piece never attempts to explain which “racial tensions” Trump is fanning. As columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote in a July 7 piece for the Post’s opinion section, the use of these phrases “verges on self-parody. ‘Trump fans racism.’ Period.”
Kim’s article would work better if it just called Trump’s rhetoric racist -- and it would be more consistent with other recent reporting from the Post.
CNN decides it knows what’s in the president’s heart
CNN’s July 7 article by Zachary Wolf “The real problem with government officials not correcting Trump” uses particularly tortured phrasing claiming that Trump’s “heart” has been “in stoking racial divides.”
President Donald Trump's heart of late has been in stoking racial divides and protecting symbols of the Confederacy. Monday it was the Confederate flag, which even Republicans in Mississippi recently abandoned.
This reference to the president’s “heart” to talk about his support for a patently racist symbol -- which the article then refuses to call racist -- is odd because many reporters avoid applying the label “racist” to a person’s internal psychology since that is difficult to prove. And yet CNN claims to know what is in the president’s “heart” while simultaneously dodging calling his actions racist. As journalist Gene Demby told NPR’s Code Switch in January 2019, “If you primarily understand racism as a kind of … moral failing, you can't use that term unless you can sort of characterize what's happening in people's hearts. We as journalists can't really do that. But that's not the only way to understand something as racist, right?” He continued:
Well, a lot of people understand racism as just a structural reality, particularly people of color. If the United States was built on this history of ethnic cleansing of Native American people and the enslavement of black people and then all these subsequent arrangements flow out of those things, then racism and white supremacy is just, like, part of the source code of American life. It doesn't need to be sort of discerned from people's souls. And these two understandings of racism, those things are butting up against each other when we're using this language in our news coverage.
The rest of the CNN article doesn’t focus on Trump’s racism, but it still represents a persistent issue in media coverage of the president. Articles that focus on other issues -- in this case, Trump’s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic -- but use one-off references to the president’s “racially tinged” or “racially divisive” language are especially misleading, because those short mentions do nothing to properly contextualize his racist language or behavior. As Pete Vernon explained for the Columbia Journalism Review in July 2019:
Words matter, particularly when they are used to address the most divisive and politically fraught issue in America. But accurate reporting requires dealing honestly with the context of the situation. A president who launched his campaign with racist comments about Mexican immigrants, who built his political profile on the racist lie that Barack Obama was not born in America, and who saw “fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville last month has provided the evidence necessary to move beyond circumlocution.
Mainstream media’s continued usage of euphemisms to describe the president’s racist behavior obscures the truth. These terms seem to persist because the media are hesitant to ascribe racist intent, but intent is not the only criteria for judging whether something is racist. If journalism is supposed to speak truth to power, then it needs to be able to accurately call out racism coming from the highest office in the country.