What is ethnic tension?
Early in my journalism career I heard that phrase over and over. I lived in Utica, New York, a small city with a sizable community of refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina. An editor loaded me up with books and articles about the civil war that had happened there about a decade before to prepare me for my first reporting trip abroad. The plan was that I would follow one Bosnian woman as she returned to her home country to find out what happened to her family.
Everything I read stated that the root cause of the war was ethnic tension. Journalists, academics, and analysts all used the same phrase. I was a green reporter then, lacking the confidence to say that I wasn’t exactly sure what that phrase meant.
So I asked dozens of Bosnians in Utica and in Bosnia to explain what sparked that war. They described generational memories of violence that had happened long ago—conflict between their forefathers and the forefathers of their neighbors. They talked about why their country was split along religious lines even though people there shared the same ancestry. They remembered the years before the civil war began, when minor slights among people who were once friends were whipped into serious grievances by nationalists on both sides.
None of them ever said “ethnic tension.”
When we use the word “ethnic,” what are we really saying? Is it a reference to someone’s culture? Is it noting a religion or ties to a certain location? Is it about language or a spiritual belief system? Does it refer to someone’s race? What about skin color?
In nearly 20 years in journalism, in every case I’ve seen the word “ethnic” used, it’s been a weak option compared to a more precise description.
The word isn’t inherently evil. If a source in a Global Press Journal story uses the word in a quote, it’s left as is. But, in every case, it’s imprecise. At best, it doesn’t give readers the information they need. At worst, it compounds stereotypes.
If violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is described as “ethnic tension,” a reader might assume that the conflict pits one tribe against another or that political divisions boiled over. In reality, a spate of violence might be due to a land dispute between two neighboring communities. The phrase is shorthand used by newspeople and academics who either aren’t sure of the origin of the violence or don’t believe readers have the tolerance for more precise descriptions.
Precision is one foundational principle in the Global Press Style Guide. Every entry in our guide is borne of a real-life example that GPJ editors and reporters have encountered in 13 years of publishing news from around the world.
When a reporter described an area filled with cinderblock homes with sheet metal roofs, an editor was tempted to call it a slum. In reality, the reporter explained, it was an orderly, working-class neighborhood. Now, the word “slum” is always removed in favor of a description that helps readers accurately envision the area being referenced.
Democratic Republic of Congo is a hotbed for what many news agencies call rebel groups, but GPJ reporters there wondered: If DRC’s president has refused to leave office even though his term ended more than two years ago, who is the real rebel? Now, GPJ uses the phrase “armed groups.”
The phrase “Global South” must describe the Southern Hemisphere, right? In reality, it’s a sanitized term to describe poor people and poor places. (Sorry, Australia.) That phrase doesn’t appear in our stories. Instead, we look for descriptors that relate directly to the news and present them in such a way that sources in the story can recognize themselves in the published piece. If we’re writing about education in rural Guatemala, we might include a standard monthly income for families there—information gathered at that place by a GPJ reporter—to show why they put their young children to work.
The other foundational principle for the Global Press Style Guide is dignity.
Up until very recently, the AP Stylebook stated that it was okay to refer to people who live in Sri Lanka as Ceylonese. We have a strong team of reporters there, and not a single one of them would assent to being referenced as a resident of the colonial nation of Ceylon, which ceased to exist in 1972, the year the nation became Sri Lanka. At some point after the Global Press Style Guide was released, the AP removed its entire entry for Ceylon and the reference to Ceylonese. We don’t know for sure when that change was made because, while AP usually notes its changes and updates publicly on an easily-accessible list on its website, the removal of the Ceylon entry isn’t noted.
It’s not okay to refer generally to ancient religions practiced through Africa as animism. In fact, Animism should be capitalized because it refers to a specific set of beliefs.
The Global Press Style Guide isn’t about synonyms. We don’t aim to create a fill-in-the-blank method for replacing imprecise or undignified words. Often, a full overhaul of a sentence, paragraph, or entire story is needed to ensure that the tone is accurate. To write differently, we have to think differently. Editors who deal with international stories, ask yourselves: What do you know for sure? Often, it’s less than you thought.
Every entry in our guide includes both a rule and a rationale. We don’t list words without explanation. And more often than not, the guide steers journalists toward local experts who can offer nuanced descriptions of people, places, and issues that, too often, are tumbled through editorial systems to match a reader or editor’s preconceived expectations. (And to be clear, we consider people who have roots in a community about which we’re writing to have much more expertise than an academic who might have visited once or twice to conduct a survey.
We’ll continue to update our Style Guide as we expand our coverage area. Like any guide having to do with language, ours is living. Even more than that, it’s an extension of the knowledge held by our journalists, all of whom cover the communities where they live. This guide is a roadmap for how to use precise, dignified language to fulfill journalism’s ultimate goal: Truth-telling.