Printed revision and update for the style guide
Reviewed by Carolyn Schurr Levin
Originally a project of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism in San Francisco State University’s journalism department in the 1990s, the “Diversity Style Guide” was a collection of terms from other style guides that existed at the time. That original guide, which was available in PDF form but was never published, was updated and expanded into a searchable website, https://www.diversitystyleguide.com, in 2016. The goal of the website, which is still available and regularly updated, was to “make journalism more inclusive from the classroom to the newsroom.” The website offered “guidance, context and nuance for media professionals struggling to write about people who are different from themselves and communities different from their own.”
While editing the website, Rachele Kanigel, Professor and Chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University, realized that “there were a lot of issues and context that needed further exploration, and that a book would be a better format for that information.” The result was the book version of “The Diversity Style Guide,” a highly useful and usable tool for students, professors and professional journalists alike. Although published in 2019, what better time to explore this book than now?
“All media professionals have to face decisions about the language they use whenever they set out to write about the human experience,” Kanigel writes in the book’s Introduction. “Is it better to call the son of a Guatemalan immigrant Hispanic or Latino? Should you refer to a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe in Maine as an American Indian or a Native American, an Indigenous American or a Native person, or avoid racial descriptors altogether. . . Is a man in his 80s elderly, a senior citizen or just a senior?” “The Diversity Style Guide” provides journalism students and media professionals with an understanding about the role of diversity in journalism and about “the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that words can alienate a source or infuriate a reader.” The book can be used as both a teaching tool in journalism classes and a reference tool that students and student newsrooms can have on the shelf.
The “Diversity Style Guide” website remains available, free of charge, and is updated on a weekly basis. So what is the benefit of investing in the book version of the guide? “The content is very different,” Kanigel explained. “The only part that’s similar is the glossary of terms. The content in the chapters of the book isn’t on the website and the website has some terms that aren’t in the book.” Kanigel added that there is “a lot of information in the book that isn’t available anywhere else.”
The book is divided into two parts, “Covering a Diverse Society” in Part I and “The Journalist’s Diversity Toolbox” (an alphabetical style guide defining and explaining terms and proper usage) in Part II. The chapters on Black Americans, Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, and gender equality in Part I are timely and valuable, Kanigel said. Not only do these chapters provide recommendations for reporting, but they also offer tip sheets, ways to avoid misinformation, discussion activities, and additional readings and resources. The last chapter, “Diversity and Inclusion in a Changing Industry,” might give student journalists and advisers ideas for making student media organizations more inclusive. “Simply hiring people from different identity groups isn’t enough to diversify a staff,” the book states. “[N]ewsroom leaders must be committed to creating an inclusive newsroom – one where all people are valued and listened to.”
Is “The Diversity Style Guide” about political correctness? Absolutely not, Kanigel said. This is a book about being “accurate and respectful,” she explained. “If you call people by the wrong pronoun or use an antiquated or offensive term like ‘sexual preference,” or ‘transsexual,’ you look foolish, out of step or insensitive.” The book is a gentle – or perhaps not so gentle – reminder that we all look at the world through a particular lens and “whether we like it or not, we have blinders that keep us from seeing parts of a story.”
Kanigel has used some of the book’s diversity and inclusion activities in her own classes and in workshops with her student newspaper staff. The activities, such as Diversity Bingo, Step Forward Step Back, and Welcome Circle, are aimed at helping students explore and understand diversity, identity and inclusion.
So much has happened even since the book’s publication less than two years ago. After the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, many media organizations have changed their guidance on capitalization of Black and other terms related to race. In that respect, the website is beneficial because the content is fresh and regularly updated.
But, the book version of “The Diversity Style Guide” has its own immense value. It assists journalism students in understanding the power and nuances of language. In that respect, it feels critically important, if not essential, for journalism students today. “The Diversity Style Guide” caringly urges them to: “Consider the role you play in perpetuating and busting stereotypes. Think carefully about the words you use.” And, perhaps warns them: “A single journalist’s mistake may be picked up and repeated for years. Now, more than ever, journalists need to choose their words carefully.”
Carolyn Schurr Levin, a media and First Amendment attorney, is of counsel at Miller Korzenik Sommers Rayman LLP in New York. She was the Vice President and General Counsel of Newsday, Vice President and General Counsel of Ziff Davis Media, and Media Law Adviser for the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. She teaches Media Ethics & Law at City University of New York’s Baruch College, and has also taught media ethics and law at Stony Brook University, Long Island University, and Pace University. From 2010-2019, she was the faculty adviser for the Pioneer, the student newspaper at Long Island University, during which time the Pioneer won 28 awards.