On the pages of the Sparks Tribune, I work to write headlines that at least make readers curious, on occasion eliciting a laugh or at least acknowledgment of my unique brand of cleverness. This week, however, an opinion columnist who writes for Tuesday’s paper presented a different strategy to the grabby headline: offend.
David Farside, a longtime pot-stirrer for the Tribune, wrote about the recent flap over a professor who published edited versions of some Mark Twain books. Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University, edited “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by removing the words “nigger” and “injun,” apparently with the intent of getting those great pieces of literature back in the hands of schoolchildren. Like many, Farside criticized the censorship, discussing his own situation in a wheelchair and being called a “cripple.”
When Farside submitted his column to me, he suggested using the word “nigger” in the headline to get readers’ notice. I always ask my writers to suggest headlines for their articles but usually the suggestions are not so challenging.
Being a very open-minded editor who enjoys a bit of pot-stirring myself, my first reaction was to agree with Farside and allow the word in the headline. It would not have been the first time I allowed an offensive word in print, however in the past these words have been in the small type of the article’s body text. My policy always has been to allow such words in articles as long as they are relevant to the content and are directly quoted from a source. Luckily, the need to make such judgment calls doesn’t come up very often.
This case was interesting, however, for a few reasons. First, it met my generally loose guideline by being germane to the story and being a direct quote from a source, since Twain used the words repeatedly in his novels. Allowing the word to be used in the article was never in question, but that’s in 10-point font, easily overlooked in the mass of gray on the page. Using it in a headline is at least three times as large and certain to be noticed by even the laziest of readers.
What is the difference you ask? Regardless of the size, the word is still there poised to offend anyone who would see it. The answer is there is no difference, except for the very reason to put it in a headline — to shock — and that would run contrary to allowing its use for purposes of a rational discussion of a legitimate news issue.
I still had a feeling that the legitimate discussion rationale extended to a headline, so I decided to ask for a few opinions around the newsroom. The first person I asked said she would not be offended at seeing the word in the headline given the context of the discussion. The second person said she would be offended for her black friends. That’s when it occurred to me: The employees at the Tribune are all a bunch of white folks. How can I get a real perspective on use of the word from people it doesn’t apply to? (As a side note, it occurred to me later that there is one black lady who works at the Tribune but that I didn’t even acknowledge her as being black, she is just a person. I hope that says something for my own color-blindness.)
As I continued the discussion with one of my reporters, he pointed out Farside’s picture accompanying his article: an old white man. That’s when it really occurred to me that neither he nor I could ever truly judge the offensiveness of nigger or any other racial slur that does not apply to us. Even racial slurs aimed at white people are contrived since their existence is really just a reaction to the slur slinging started by white people. Of course, Farside has had to endure life in a wheelchair and the cruelty that comes with it, but neither of us really could judge the rightness or wrongness of the word nigger.
Despite some fear of negative feedback, I ultimately allowed the word in the headline. Almost a week later, I have received no phone calls, no e-mails and there is not one comment on the online edition of Farside’s column. Perhaps I fretted over nothing, or perhaps I just have no black readers. Either way, I still can’t help but think that whether I allow the word or not, the truth is I can never make a completely correct call because I am truly unbiased. The word has no effect on me. On the flip side, an editor with black skin would be biased but at least could speak with some authority as to the word’s current connotation and its appropriateness in classic literature and news reporting. It’s really a no-win situation.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a new episode of “16 and Pregnant” on TV.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.