What does it mean to be white? Is there an identifiable culture, race or ethnic group associated with the word?
On June 19, the Associated Press changed its style to uppercase “Black” and “Indigenous” (original inhabitants of a place) when referring to individuals who share a racial, ethnic or cultural identity. The lower-case black is now only a color, not a person. This is consistent with AP style on Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, etc.
At the same time, AP's Style Committee announced it was still considering whether to capitalize “white.” Last week, the decision was made not to – at least for now. (Note: AP does capitalize Caucasian.)
So who are these style mavens?
Founded in 1846, the Associated Press is a cooperative of news organizations from around the globe. It allows privately owned community newspapers such as The Journal Gazette to get on-the-ground reports from Afghanistan, Russia, Europe, Africa, Central America and other news-producing locations around the world.
Occasionally readers will ask why we publish AP copy instead of covering the news with our own reporters. The truth is that it is just not economically feasible to do so. Regional editors, located around the world and with in-depth knowledge of foreign affairs, edit copy for the international wire feed. Domestic bureaus in the United States make copy available to us from California to rural Nebraska and from Boston to Houston.
It is not an insignificant expense. The JG pays AP about $3,100 a week – but that dwarfs what it would cost us to have reporters everywhere.
And for that, we get hundreds of stories a day, many of them with sidebars and photographs.
Some of our readers have told us they want only local news in their newspaper. Others rely on us for much broader coverage of the world and still others to add to the mix of headlines they see on TV.
So what does all of this have to do with AP style? Why do we adhere to AP style?
If you believe the path to resolving problems begins with communication, then agreement on a standard style is as important to effective communication as standard spelling. Imagine if everyone had their own dictionary, or spelled words as they saw fit. Common style and spelling improve clarity and understanding and allow us to concentrate on the facts and ideas being advanced vs. deciphering words and phrases.
The truth is that most stories we publish – AP and local – never mention race or religion or ethnicity. And that is the way it should be when that information is not essential to the story. On Monday, for example, we published about 60 stories or shorts and about 20 display photos. Race or religion was mentioned in just five (or 6.25%) of those.
AP's style committee has been considering the change on “Black” and “Indigenous” for a couple of years. There is little question but that the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests pushed this from the discussion stage to the stylebook.
There is a common culture when we discuss Hispanic or Black or Jewish or Amish that is relevant in some stories. AP found “white” too broad to be clearly defined as a culture, ethnic or racial group.
White Americans are more likely to identify as descendants of the Irish, German, English, etc., or as being Catholics or Protestants or Jews. Many of the foods, holidays and traditions we observe reflect those of our ancestral culture. “White” is just a color.
Sherry Skufca is editor of The Journal Gazette.