Words matter. Especially now. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, words matter because facts and lives are at stake, and both are under assault by a president-elect whose language has life-or-death consequences. A national debate over language is underway, and the frontlines of this battle over words is where we—Fusion’s editors—are positioning ourselves during Trump’s presidency. This is one fight that Fusion accepts, and we should fight it as forcefully, openly, and carefully as possible.
Trump’s low road to high office has taken resistible turns that went unstopped by a news media still sorting out its own missteps. Many news outlets are asking hard questions about journalistic credibility, factual accuracy, and the importance of thoughtful word choice in public conversations.
This article—and the series that follows—walks you through Fusion’s editorial guidelines on words around justice, discrimination, and equality. On language’s power to deceive and dehumanize. As a news organization, Fusion amplifies underrepresented voices and reports facts accurately. Our stance on style is always this: Use words that inform, empower, and elevate facts over fantasy or political fiction—and show the difference.
We’re in good company in this call for a conversation about words. The Associated Press recently made the same spot-on announcement that Fusion had made by declaring “alt-right” a misleading catchphrase that should not be used casually. Fusion rejects all deceptive buzzwords that obscure their underlying meanings.
But “alt-right” is an easy, if deserving, target. Harder to root out and extinguish are familiar words that deceive us every day.
Take, for example, two words commonly seen in headlines: “blacks” and “whites.”
Ah, blacks and whites.
Fusion’s guideline is to dispense with “blacks” and “whites” as nouns and replace them with “black” and “white” as adjectives, followed by “people” or another noun that fits the sentence. To see why, try adding “the” before “blacks” and “whites” and watch the awkwardness unfold, as our next orator in chief routinely does:
“I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”
“The whites don’t get any nominations [from Black Entertainment Television].”
Trump’s use of “the” before “blacks” and “whites” has a distancing effect that divides and objectifies by design. But even without “the,” there’s a grammatical and logical flaw in “blacks” and “whites” as nouns because their singular forms—“a” black and “a” white—so obviously mischaracterize millions of people’s lives. A black? A white?
The core problem with “a” black and “a” white is that they imply there’s a word missing—person. A black person. A white person. It’s the grammatical equivalent of de-person-ization, or dehumanization: Person is gone. Race is all.
But there’s an easy fix to this flaw, and it costs no time or energy to do it, as Fusion argues for in our newsroom’s style guide:
Instead of “blacks” and “whites” as nouns, which define people exclusively by race, use “black” and “white” as adjectives, which describe (instead of define) people by race: “black people,” “white people,” “black voters,” “white voters,” “black communities,” “white communities,” “black/white populations/residents/citizens.”
The split second it takes to expand “blacks” and “whites” into “black people” and “white people” is a small price to pay for accurately characterizing people’s lives.
Fusion champions this move to “black” and “white” as adjectives across national media.
But this change will be an uphill battle. “Blacks” and “whites” are pretty much everywhere in headlines. Sample these from 2016:
In Fusion’s archives, we find this one from last year:
Rethinking shorthand crutches like “blacks” and “whites” is a common project, and Fusion commits to it.
Nouns have definitional power. Adjectives don’t. Nouns essentialize. Adjectives describe. Both have their uses, and not every noun reduces or distances. But “blacks” and “whites” do. If President-elect Trump can’t or won’t think critically enough or long enough about words’ consequences, we must.
If many news outlets can’t or won’t rethink their guidelines on commonly used and loaded terms, we have to.
If online trolls can’t or won’t stop trolling long enough to troll their own words for mistakes in meaning and use, we should.
Almost every time Trump opens his mouth publicly, the words that tumble out are so disconnected from facts that the media can’t refute him fast enough. We need to try.
Not everyone supports this call for a conversation about words. Skeptics of progressive style say we fixate too much on words at the expense of words’ meanings—the pitfalls of “political correctness.” That’s a serious claim worth acknowledging: If all you’re doing is shuffling words around to sound progressive—without reframing your thinking—the hardest work is still ahead.
But here’s what our critics miss: Accurate words encourage accurate thinking. Accurately chosen words get us to precise factual descriptions.
That’s why words matter. That’s why style guides matter. That’s why critical thinking and conversation matter. That’s why Trump’s reckless, harmful words matter. Progressive style isn’t about making us nicer or nobler or more polite. And it’s not about belittling the real anger expressed by hostile words. Instead, progressive style is about making us think more critically, listen more openly, and question more carefully—with attention to the deadly consequences words can have.
Michelle Obama nailed it this week: “Words matter….And the words that we say moving forward—all of us—it matters.”
In the months ahead, Fusion will share our editorial guidelines on words around gender, sexuality, religion, atheism, immigration, nationality, criminality, addiction, and more. We’ll explore the rhetoric of the right and the language of the left, and the catchphrases at every point on the continuum of conversation.
This isn’t the only fight ahead of us. There are many battles to have under Trump’s presidency. But words underlie thoughts. And thoughts underlie action. You might be surprised where a style guide can take us.
Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.