Media’s role in social change reactive, not proactive
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2013 23:02
While the decision from the Associated Press Stylebook, the guide that sets the standard for most print and online media outlets in the U.S., to expand the entry of “husband, wife” to include all legally recognized spouses regardless of sexual orientation, should be regarded as a step in the right direction, a bigger question has surfaced: What is the role of media in social change?
Until a news release was sent out last week, stating the new edition of the stylebook would change the definition formally, the AP had generally preferred using the terms “couples” or “partners” to refer to individuals in same-sex marriages.
It seems as though denying the ability to use the word “husband” or “wife” for members of non-traditional marriages would be stripping the individuals of a right, no matter how small, but is it the role of the media to be on the right side of history or document history as it is?
If a couple is legally granted the right of marriage, regardless of orientation, it seems as though there would be no reason for media outlets to not grant the rights of language use that accompany it.
But other areas are less clear-cut.
The Stylebook currently has entry listings for “spokesman” and “spokeswoman,” but no entry for “spokesperson,” or for anyone who may not identify as either a man or a woman. While the number of these individuals who exist as spokespeople may be very few, if any, it is worthy of consideration as to whether the language used by media perpetuates what society thinks or what opportunities may be available to people who terms do not exist for.
According to a 2003 article from the Poynter Institute, an organization that specializes in journalism and media-related studies, the term “black” was used to replace the term “Negro” in the Stylebook around the 1970s. “Negro” replaced the term “colored.” Both of the latter terms are now largely considered derogatory.
The fact that the disparity between poverty levels between white and black citizens have fallen by 10 percent since the 1970s, according to a 2009 study from the University of Wisconsin, may simply be correlation. But, while words themselves do not create social injustices, the weight they carry does.
It is not, however, the media’s role to put terminology in place. That is the role of newsmakers. The media simply follows society. The Stylebook recently added terms such as “Twitter,” a concept that couldn’t have been pre-conceived in the 1970s, and changed the entry for “e-mail” to “email” as the word became used more frequently as the latter.
But while it is not the media’s role to be the impetus of social change, the media certainly needs to be quick in its responsiveness to the social change around it, not allowing itself to become hidebound by archaic terms that constrain societal progress.