Alicia C. Shepard
Nine times out of 10, it is the adjectives that get journalists in trouble.
Most recently, an adjective got veteran NPR newscaster Jean Cochran into difficulty when she said on Valentine's Day that President Bush was heading to Africa to visit the "dark continent."
Almost immediately, a flurry of angry emails and phone calls came into NPR.
"I thought that we had wrested that comment along with 'colored' and other euphemisms for Africans or Afro-Americans," wrote one listener, summing up how others felt. "Could you please report my comments to NPR management? I almost drove off the side of the road to start a protest!!!"
"This is simply an outdated reference as well as being outrageously offensive," wrote another listener, Karrye Y. Braxton.
The copy, which had been approved by an editor, was pulled and Cochran agreed to never use the expression again.
"I had no idea the term would be found offensive," said Cochran, who joined NPR in 1981. "I will concede antiquated but I was unaware it was 'racist and irredeemable,' as one person put it in an email. I was floored. Am I insensitive? I don't know how that could be since I didn't know there was anything to be sensitive about. I understood the term to refer to the African jungle. It's a canopy blocking out the light. A geographical term."
Cochran is correct in one sense. Originially, the term "dark continent" came into use in the 19th century to describe a continent largely unknown and mysterious to Europeans. Explorer Henry M. Stanley used it in his 1878 book, Through the Dark Continent.
In fact, it is still used today, but in context. Because of the dearth of electricity on much of the continent, satellite imaging from outer space depicts much of Africa at night as literally a dark continent. An article in The Economist last July, on how investors view Africa, refers to it as the "dark continent." "With all this concern of offending people, it is important for people to understand why and where the term exists," said Neal Weintraub, an author of four books on investing, who provided NPR The Economist example.
Nonetheless, while it may have been a romantic phrase in the 19th century, it is more commonly thought of as an archaic expression, especially if not used in historical context.
The book, Talking About People, notes that such phrases as "the dark continent," and "darkest Africa" are Eurocentric, ethnocentric and even historically inaccurate. Only 20 percent of the continent is forested. Metaphorically, says the book, Africa is unknown only to those who don't live there.
Despite Cochran's innocent use of the term, "the impact of the description still has racist overtones," said Arlene Morgan, who with Keith Woods is author of Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity. "So journalists today have to consider impact. Surely, the audience had to wonder why she thought the description of dark was accurate or appropriate."
Cochran issued an on-air and online apology four days later at exactly the same time her "dark continent" reference first appeared: "My deepest apologies for using such an antiquated and pejorative term."
Did NPR owe an apology?
After the apology ran, some listeners were infuriated, thinking it unnecessary, claiming that NPR had succumbed to political correctness.
"As much as I believe in racial sensitivity, I draw the line at torturing the language or censoring our use of it to accommodate the hypersensitivities of the ignorant," wrote Don Howe, a corporate trainer in Los Angeles. "NPR has done its mainly informed and well-educated audience a disservice by caving into a grossly misplaced sense of liberal guilt. I only hope you don't apologize the next time someone uses the word 'niggardly'."
Some may recall that in 1999, a white Washington, D.C. city government official resigned after he used the word niggardly in a budget discussion with staffers. While the word means miserly with no racial connotations, some incorrectly assume it derives from a certain word that is definitely out of bounds.
"I think the bottom line is that so many people use code words and phrases to express prejudice- because outright racism can get you fired from many jobs nowadays- that people are understandably suspicious of any turn of phrase which hints at a racial stereotype," Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times told NPR. "So the broadcaster may not be guilty of anything beyond some ignorance in anticipating how her words might sound. But writers and editors have to be a bit more careful about how these phrases sound."
Some word meanings evolve over time and become accepted. Others like "dark continent" retain their power.
"Even when not consciously selected, language that diminishes one group at the expense of others wields great power in naturalizing unequal power relations," Prof. Martin A. Berger, who specializes in gender and race at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told NPR. "It's less useful to talk about 'racist' people, than to see how racialized patterns of thought and speech are structured into our lives."
So should NPR have apologized?
Given the intense listener reaction, it would have been arrogant for NPR to ignore the use of the controversial term. But in not offering any serious explanation for its apology, NPR missed an opportunity for a broader discussion — on air, online, or both — about the power of language.
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