NPR is the latest news organization to make policy changes around its use of the name of Washington’s professional football team, though unlike many others, the national radio network will not prohibit use of “Redskins” on air in all instances. Rather, the news station is taking steps to limit the use of the word to bring it in line with its policy on offensive language.
Mark Memmott, NPR’s standards editor, announced the change in a memo to employees on Friday.
“NPR News does not plan to prohibit the use of the full team name. The team’s name is the name and our job is to report on the world as it is, not to take a position or become part of the story,” Memmott said in the memo. “But, our policy on potentially offensive language states that ‘as a responsible broadcaster, NPR has always set a high bar on use of language that may be offensive to our audience. Use of such language on the air [and online] has been strictly limited to situations where it is absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.’”
The memo notes that NPR does not often report on the team in a manner that makes the word common on its stations, but that it can use “Washington” instead of the team’s name in most instances (when it is not specifically covering the controversy). While NPR won’t strictly prohibit its use, “we can also be sensitive, avoid overuse of the word and use alternatives — as we would with other potentially offensive language,” Memmott concluded.
While Memmott wrote in the guidance that the policy was not changing significantly, NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos disagreed, writing in a column about the decision that “this is in fact a very significant change, not only for NPR, but for the mainstream media in general.”
Other outlets have long avoided use of the name — The Oregonian, for instance, stopped in 1992 — and as the issue has become more prominent in recent years, many others have joined. D.C.-centric outlets like Slate, Mother Jones, and the Washington City Paper no longer print the name, and before this season, the Charlotte Observer decided to stop using it. But NPR’s decision is more significant because, Schumacher-Matos wrote, it is now “the first large national news organization to pull back on the use of a name that is a slur to many Native Americans.”
That is partially true, though the Washington Post’s editorial board has chosen to quit using the name altogether and all four major broadcast networks that partner with the NFL — ESPN, CBS, Fox, and NBC — have given their broadcasters and analysts the option to stop saying the name. NPR’s new guidance, though, will likely have the largest visible effect of any of those policies, since the Post’s news side still uses the term and most of the broadcast personalities (though not all) do as well.
News outlets deciding to drop the name isn’t going to cause it to change, but other recent challenges to it could. In June, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeals Board invalidated six of Washington’s trademarks on grounds that its name was “disparaging to Native Americans,” and the Federal Communications Commission will soon consider a petition that threatens the broadcast licenses of radio stations that use the name repeatedly, on grounds that it is a profane term that the Commission can regulate.