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PBS, Other Media Companies, Capitalize 'Black' to Be More Inclusive
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Widespread protests demanding racial justice following the killing of George Floyd have led to many changes, including the use of language. Floyd died in May 2020 after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

In grappling with the language used to cover race, major media organizations across the country, including PBS, recently decided to start capitalizing “Black” when referring to people in a racial, ethnic, or cultural context.

The change is an effort to make language more inclusive, fair, and accurate. The National Association of Black Journalists, or NABJ, has urged the industry to make this change “when referring to (and out of respect for) the Black diaspora.” (The term African American is not always accurate because not all Black people trace their lineage to Africa.)

“It does seem like now is the time," said Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at the Poynter Institute. Truong served on the committee that updated the PBS Editorial Standards in 2018. “It's a change, as the NABJ points out, that doesn't cost you anything and ... is very meaningful to the people who are affected.”

PBS added the entry “Race and Ethnicities: Black Americans” to its Articles Style Guide on June 9, 2020. The new entry states: “Reference to Black Americans: Use a capital B to signal the racial/ethnic/cultural identity of a group of Americans. Similarly, we capitalize the references to various other racial/ethnic/cultural groups, like Asian Americans or Hispanic Americans or Arab Americans.”

The guide continues: “We feel that it is important to differentiate between black as a descriptor and Black as a racial/ethnic/cultural community.”

The Seattle Times and Boston Globe switched to a capital “B” in late 2019. Many news outlets – such as the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, and NBC News – followed in June 2020. Perhaps most significantly, the Associated Press announced its decision to make the change going forward on Juneteenth of 2020.

The AP Stylebook is widely used by journalists as well as by marketing, publishing, and public relations agencies, so the AP’s decision carries considerable weight. The 55th edition of the AP Stylebook was already published earlier this year, so the printed version does not include the change to capitalize Black.

John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards, wrote in a posted announcement: “AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”

The AP also announced that it is now capitalizing “Indigenous” when referring to the original inhabitants of a place. The AP has a longstanding practice of capitalizing Latino, Asian American, and Native American. The AP decided that it will continue to lowercase “white.” The AP and other organizations have noted that “white” does not generally carry cultural implications; they also do not want to be perceived as following the lead of white supremacists, who favor capitalizing the word.

Daniszewski said the AP’s decision to change its style for Black came after more than two years of research and discussion. Some think the change by mainstream news organizations is long overdue; Black media outlets such as Essence and Ebony have capitalized Black for years.

The Seattle Times’ managing editor, Ray Rivera, wrote on Dec. 19, 2019, “It is increasingly clear this is the preferred term among many Black publications and presses. It seems appropriate and respectful for us to follow suit.”

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