Journalism has historically had as its philosophical intention to educate, inform and hold power to account. This was the authoritative definition of a free press as defined by Thomas Jefferson. But has political correctness damaged that?
These days one must be politically correct in ways that water down what writers intend. This is the opinion of a new book called Coloring the News . In the present debate over what can and cannot be said, the thesis here is the pendulum has gone too far particularly on topics involving race, feminism, immigration, abortion and other hot button topics.
During recent months there has been controversy over cartoons and jokes lampooning America's first black President, Barack Obama. There are those who believe his faults and foibles should be discussed as any other executive in high office. Others believe that any criticism is racially biased. The truth, some say, is likely some mid point that folks haven't found as yet. It is, after all, a new issue.
Years ago when I referred to going out with my girlfriends, a psychologist friend immediately told me that I was no longer a girl and likely my friends weren't either. Furthermore, he asked, “do you want to be a girl?” This again points out the ongoing discussion and controversy about political correctness in our speech and in our writing for in this case my answers were both yes and no.
Language, as S.I. Hayakawa observed in the classic “Language in Thought and Action” does influence behavior. That being the case, what does it say when we are constantly concerned about political correctness? How much of what is written comes from innocence and how much from political bias, and how do we know the difference? These are some of the issues this new book by William McGowan, Coloring the News, addresses.
Two years ago media analysts maintained that Don Imus had gone too far in his remarks about a girls' basketball team. The issue concerned whether the term he used to describe them, “nappy-headed hoes,” had crossed the line from “shock jock” to some form of journalistic obscenity. There was widespread agreement from many factions that Imus went too far.
The issue brought up the question how far comedians and “shock jocks” can go in trying to be provocative that continues to stir debate.
Another example about political correctness is seen in the way our language continues to evolve and be defined. In an effort to assuage gay rights supporters and advocates of gay marriage Merriam-Webster’s new dictionary now has a new definition of marriage that reads, dictionary , “the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.”
Political correctness to extreme has its counterpoint in language that mistakenly refers to one group as if it were homogeneous in belief or practice, using the words that are exclusive, such as “all” or “nothing” to describe people or behavior. An example of this would be , “Asians believe in humility and deference in their behavior” where the word “all” is implied by context or the negative, “The violence was perpetrated by Jews in the territories occupied by Israel” when the problem might have been instigated by individuals who don't espouse the religion or culture but instead are nationals from a defined territory of the Middle East and therefore Israelis. These are some of the types of examples shown in texts like The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David Crystal. Still the language issue is complex enough that William McGowan believes there needs to be a balance where language issues should be reasonable, allowing journalists freedom of expression balanced by responsibility. Responsibility comes from journalism ethics.
Political correctness continues to be an area of debate for journalists and non journalists alike in the area of political correctness over what is or is not appropriate language in defining or describing an individual or set of events. Perhaps it should be back to basics and common sense, McGowan sees we need as both creators and consumers of the news.