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Jay Furst: Team name must be identified in news coverage

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A lot of Native American people find the term "redskin" offensive. If you doubt that, check the long list of organizations, including the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community among Minnesota tribes, that are pressuring the owner of the Washington Redskins to change the team's name.

Does every Native American agree, and does every tribe oppose the name? Of course not, but it's irrefutable that a large number of Native American organizations and leaders in Minnesota and nationally believe "redskins" is derogatory and a racist slur, pure and simple.

The National Coalition Against Racism in Sports Media, the Minneapolis-based organization that is out front in the effort to pressure the Redskins organization to change the name, has asked news media to quit using the team name in its coverage. "We believe the word 'Redskin' is a form of hate speech, is discriminatory, is a vulgar racial slur as determined by the recent Federal Trademark ruling, violates certain federal and state labor laws, violates the editorial standards of your organization ... and is entirely unnecessary regardless of whether a racist owner chooses to change the name or not," the organization said in a recent letter to the P-B (and presumably to many other news organizations).

Four major newspapers — the Kansas City Star, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times and the Oregonian in Portland, Ore. — have done that, according to an October report by the nonprofit Pew Research Center , and since then, the Detroit News also has dropped the name. So have some magazines, websites, TV sports programs and individual journalists and commentators.

The vast majority of news organizations haven't changed their news style, and the New York Times and the Associated Press have said explicitly that they won't change their news policy. Likewise, we've been discussing it at the P-B for a few weeks, and here's where we've ended up:

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Many but not all P-B journalists believe the name is derogatory and should be changed, and they believe the paper should continue to write editorials calling for that.

Several people also said the P-B should drop the name in news and sports coverage. Others said they were concerned about the journalistic issues raised by doing that. If we drop the team's legal name, do we appear to be tilting our news coverage in one direction? Does that risk our credibility on that issue and other issues?

In the end, we arrived at the Washington Post's solution : We won't use the name in P-B editorials on the Opinions page, but we'll continue to use the name in news and sports stories.

At the same time, we acknowledge that the team name is offensive to some readers, and we'll do our best to limit use of the name — once a story ought to be enough — and we'll limit usage in headlines and photo captions. We'll also be more attentive to the use of other team names that are controversial, such as the Cleveland Indians. It's common to refer to the Indians as the "Tribe," for example. We'll do our best to avoid those types of racially loaded terms, especially in headlines.

I think this is a good compromise that keeps the line between opinions and news coverage bright and clear. Our credibility is our most precious asset. Our mission in the news pages is to be fair, accurate and straight down the middle, avoiding any appearance of being influenced by outside pressures.

If we were to drop usage of the Washington team name in our news and sports pages, we'd appear to be choosing sides in an ongoing national debate. That would raise questions about the impartiality of our coverage, maybe not only on this issue but on others as well.

The best argument for dropping the name is that it's an offensive term, and we don't allow derogatory, racially charged language in the P-B. But in this case, it's one of the best-known brands in professional sports, and even in our coverage of the Fighting Sioux controversy at the University of North Dakota, we didn't stop using the team name.

The vast majority of mainstream journalists at news organizations around the country agree that for now, it's inappropriate to "choose sides" and drop the name. This isn't to say that a year from now we might not come to a different conclusion. This issue will evolve, new information will come out, the NFL and the team ownership will respond and we'll adjust.

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But for now, we believe it's best to cover the dispute, rather than become part of it.

Jay Furst has been the P-B's managing editor since 2000. Send comments and questions to P.O. Box 6118, Rochester, MN 55903, or furst@postbulletin.com.

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