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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL109.PRB - Politically Correct Speech«MDNM»
This football season, when sports reporters confront the question of what to call the Washington Redskins, they'll experience a conundrum we government reporters have been facing for decades.
It is the conflict between accurate speech versus politically correct speech.
For example, what term should we use to describe the federal health care law that has generated so much controversy?
Is it "Obamacare," the term critics coined to attack the proposal -- although Pres. Barack Obama later accepted the term in a presidential debate?
Or, should we use the official title of the law, "Affordable Care Act," although critics charge it has made health insurance unaffordable for some.
That's just one example of a number of times when legislators and politicians try to impose well-sounding terms into law.
Your Missouri legislators decided a few years ago to change what everyone in our country knows as "Medicaid" to "MO HealthNet."
Decades earlier, Missouri legislators even commissioned a study to find a less objectionable term to voters for a tax increase they put on the ballot. They came up with the phrase "revenue enhancement."
So, should we use the term "revenue enhancement" when it's really a tax hike?
How many times have you read the term "reform" attached to a one-sided proposal that not everyone thinks constitutes good-government reform.
As a journalism student, I was taught to avoid these kind of "color words" that could have different meanings or be objectionable depending on the reader.
Taking that approach, it would seem clear that journalists should stop using the word "Redskins" in our stories since it is objectionable to some people because it refers to skin color?
"Not everyone has to be personally offended by a word to make it a slur," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle's managing editor, Audrey Cooper, in explaining his paper's decision against using the name of that DC-area football team.
But does that mean we should stop using the official term for the Congressional "Black Caucus" or the Missouri "Black Caucus" because some prefer the term "African-American?"
Or, should we use the full formal name of legislative committees -- including a committee in 1981 that covered a hodgepodge of liberal issues -- "Public Health, Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, Welfare, Medicaid and Consumer Protecrtion."
The committee was created by the Senate's conservative leadership as a place to put all the chamber's liberal members whose bills had little or no chance in the conservative-dominated Senate.
Should we have called it the "dead-end" or "dead-bill" committee?
Thus the conundrum.
I learned a lesson about the unintended consequences of journalists using politically correct speech in 1979.
That year, Alberta Slavin became the first woman in Missouri's history to chair the Public Service Commission which regulates utilities.
By law, her position was "chairman."
But this was an era when the effort was emerging to stop using gender-specific language like "he" or "chairman."
So, I asked Slavin what we should use for her title in our stories.
I got a response I had not expected.
I did not have the right, she told me, to use anyth4ring but her official title of "chairman."
Not only did I have a journalistic obligation to be accurate, she argued that using the term "chair" could have unintended consequences for her.
Some would assume she asked that we use the term "chair." And that, she said, would reinforce the suspicions of her critics that she had a different agenda than utility regulation.
Slavin had a point. Her heated confirmation battles in the Senate had a sexist undercurrent that women's rights rather than utility regulation would be her agenda.
And she raised another point with me. If the language of the law is sexist, what right did journalists have in hiding that language from Missourians?
A good point that I continue to ponder years after Slavin's death.
As for the "chairman" term, Missouri House rules still refer to the head of a House committee as "chairman." Senate rules are inconsistent, using the term "chair" in some sections, but the term "chairman" in other sections.
So, what term should we use?
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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