We're updating our editorial policy, and making it public.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
When I started this newsletter, I had two goals:
1) Get Americans out of their political bubbles. In order to do that, I was going to intentionally present a wide range of political views, ensuring readers were exposed to arguments from across the political spectrum on the big debates of the day.
2) Build a news organization that was read, trusted, and respected by people across the political spectrum — whether they were diehard progressives, unabashed Trump supporters, or anywhere in between. My dream is to bring Fox News viewers, New York Times readers, and Joe Rogan listeners (among others) all to one place.
Accomplishing goal #1 hasn't always been easy, but I believe we are doing it. Every day, you get seven opinions: Three from different writers on the left, three from different writers on the right, and one from me. Our format prioritizes exposure, and I think most of our readers sense they have a more holistic understanding of a story than they would if they had stuck to watching MSNBC or reading the Wall Street Journal opinion page.
Goal #2 has been more difficult. We have conducted surveys of our readers that show about 45% of our readership is liberal, 30% is conservative, and the other 25% are independents or identify as something else. I’m proud of this diverse set of readers, and feel confident that our readership is unique. Better yet, that respect is mutual — at least 94% of our readers say they find us "somewhat" or "very" trustworthy, which is rewarding. But from reading feedback from the readers who unsubscribe, I’ve found we are still struggling to earn the trust of a larger audience.
One reason why, I believe (and have been told by those unsubscribing), has to do with the daily struggle of our language choices. Many readers on both the left and right have unsubscribed or written in angrily, not because of what we were saying, but how we were saying it. Whether it is calling cannabis “marijuana” (“that’s racist”) or referring to a trans person by their preferred pronouns (“that’s ceding the argument”), those readers didn’t even make it to the opposing arguments because they couldn’t get past the editorial decisions we were making on the way.
So, about a year ago, my team and I started working on a revamp of our editorial policies. Obviously, when we quote or paraphrase anyone in the newsletter, we use the language they use. But in the other sections of the newsletter, we wanted to create editorial policies that reflected our efforts at being as ideologically neutral as possible and to reach as many readers as possible.
Today, I wanted to explain why we have been making those decisions, so even if you disagreed with them you could still understand the reasoning behind them and know what to expect going forward.
Specifically, capitalization of the world Black.
The AP Stylebook, which most media outlets use, began calling for capitalizing Black in 2020 anytime writers were referring to a race, culture, or ethnicity. They also offered the guidance not to capitalize white. AP justifies its decision by noting that Black refers to a shared sense of identity, community, and history of people of the African diaspora. Meanwhile, "White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color." They also noted that "capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs."
For a long time, we followed this guidance, but going forward, we will be leaving both black and white lower-case to emphasize the function of the words as a description of skin color, and de-emphasize their importance as a description of race.
Capitalizing black and not white treats race as something deeper than a social construct, and creates an unevenness in how we refer to two racial groups. As Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Minna Salami, and other black writers have argued, this creates a whole new subset of problems. Loury put it this way:
But if all the disparate groups that constitute “whites” don’t comprise a single people, why should all the disparate groups that constitute “blacks” do so? To be honest, I don’t think they do. I would probably have a hard time seeing the sociological similarities between, say, a wealthy member of Lagos’s business class and a man on Chicago’s South Side working three part-time jobs just to pay his rent. Learning that both are black would tell me precisely nothing.
We agree, and find this reasoning much more compelling than the argument behind the AP Stylebook's decision. Capitalizing black and not white to signal specific shared culture and identity also becomes even more complicated in the increasingly multicultural, mixed-raced society that constitutes both the world at large and America today. To make this distinction would reinforce the idea that there are inherent differences in races and inherent inequality between them, an idea that I find deeply offensive and untrue.
Another prominent debate around language and race is how to refer to some Latin or Hispanic communities. Latino generally refers to people from Latin America, including Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Being Latino does not connote race — Latinos can be white, black, Indigenous, Asian, etc. In recent years, the term “Latinx” has been used by progressives as an inclusive term that avoids the gender binary of Latina or Latino. However, polling has shown that only 3% of the people the term applies to actually use it — and that just one-in-four have even heard of the term. Given that, we’ll continue to use Latino to refer to a person from a Spanish-speaking land or culture from Latin America, and Latina as the feminine form.
“Hispanic” is another term commonly but not interchangeably used to refer to this group. The term is more closely tied to language, usually referring to a person with ancestry from a country whose primary language is Spanish. So, for example, a Brazilian could be Latino (from Latin America) but non-Hispanic (since Portuguese is the national language in Brazil). Similarly, a Spaniard might be Hispanic (from a country that speaks Spanish) but non-Latino (not from Latin America). Generally speaking, Hispanic is typically reserved for someone who is living in the United States.
Given the vast differences in culture and political leanings of Americans from countries like Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, Spain, the Caribbean, or other places in Latin America, we’ll do our best to be specific when we can, as whenever possible we want to avoid referring to groups in monolithic terms.
Specifically, immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
If you are a news consumer, you have probably noticed the disparity. Many news outlets who tend to be more left-leaning will refer to these people as "undocumented immigrants" while many right-leaning outlets will use the language "illegal immigrant" or "aliens." We find that neither term properly captures a neutral sentiment. Going forward, we will be using the term "unauthorized migrant" (to refer to someone who crossed into the U.S. illegally) or "unauthorized immigrant" (to refer to an immigrant who is in the U.S. without legal status).
This specificity captures the proper technical and legal description for a person or persons who are in the United States illegally, and it avoids dehumanizing language like "alien," while also avoiding softening language like "undocumented," which can obscure the fact that someone is violating U.S. law. This approach is not likely to wholly satisfy either side, which is why it is probably the best choice.
When possible, we will also be more specific about the status of an immigrant or migrant. For instance, someone who has overstayed a temporary visa is violating the law but did not enter the United States illegally, and it is helpful to delineate that fact. Similarly, asylum seekers have a legal right to claim asylum, but until their claims are processed or cases adjudicated, they can be properly identified as unauthorized migrants if they came to the U.S. illegally.
Gender and trans care
Specifically, the language of transgender issues and trans care. In the past, we have used the popular catch-all term "gender-affirming care" to reference any treatment for a person who recognizes and embraces their preferred gender expression.
However, there is a strong argument that this expression is too broad while also ceding central tenets of the debate, such as whether "gender-affirming" should correlate with someone's biological sex or their preferred gender expression. Some so-called "de-transitioners" — people who have undergone "gender-affirming care" that they then want to reverse — have objected to the use of this expression and asked writers for more clarity about what, exactly, they are describing. For some readers, using this language is a cue that the debate has already been settled, and the information they are getting is infused with bias. Given how differently media outlets use this language, they may have a point.
In an effort to remedy this, we will attempt to be more specific in our language about care for transgender folks. When discussing this issue, we will refer to “transgender health care” or “gender therapy,” which are common terms used across newsrooms with various political biases.
To create more clarity and offer more evenhandedness, we'll do our best to distinguish between social transitioning (like whether someone is using different pronouns or names), hormone therapy, or medical interventions like gender or sex reassignment surgery. We’ll also use the expression "gender exploration" to reference minors or adults who are ambivalent about their own gender identity. Further, in an effort to stay true to the reporting of other news outlets, we may put the expression “gender-affirming care” in quotation marks to refer to, or summarize, their own reporting.
Just as specificity is critical to these conversations, so is humanizing and respecting all people involved. In that vein, we will continue to refer to transgender people by the names and pronouns that they identify with. This recognizes the legitimate differences in sex and gender expression. Some readers surely believe this, too, is "ceding ground" in the debate, but having respectful and thoughtful conversations on this issue requires a level of tolerance commensurate with using the name and pronouns a person chooses for themselves.
Specifically, differentiating between how many people died from or with the virus. Today, most news organizations tabulate the number of people who have "died from Covid" by collecting hospital data on people who died while testing positive for the virus.
As many observers have pointed out, this seems like a misleading way to discuss Covid-19 deaths. It has been and will continue to be our policy to refer to people who died from or with Covid-19 to make it clear we are referencing the total number of people who died while testing positive for Covid and allowing for other causes of death.
While some studies have shown the vast majority of people who died in hospitals while testing positive for Covid did, in fact, die of the virus, and other studies purport that we are actually undercounting Covid deaths, it is still more accurate to acknowledge that some of those deaths could be attributed to other underlying causes.
Naming mass shooters
Specifically, not naming mass shooters. When news reports broke that a recent mass shooter in Tennessee was trans and we did not name that person in our coverage of the event, some readers accused me of attempting to cover up this aspect of the shooter's identity. But this is part of our long-standing policy, and will continue to be so.
For one, there is a growing body of research showing that people who commit mass murder want to increase their notoriety and spread their ideology, and publishing their names can inadvertently assist in this effort. There is also the frequently observed "contagion effect,” in which some researchers contend that mass media coverage of these shootings can increase their frequency.
As such, we have opted to do two things: 1) Avoid naming the shooter, so we are not making them any more famous than they will already be, and 2) Avoid sharing their motivations, so we are not platforming extremist ideas that can incite more violence. Of course, #2 is much more difficult, as sometimes reporting holistically on an event necessarily involves talking about a shooter's motivations. But we will do our best to simultaneously inform you while not rewarding someone for their heinous acts.
Specifically, considering the human aspects of politics a little more often. Given the range of topics in Tangle, it's common for us to discuss all different kinds of identity groups. As always, my goal is to expose readers to many different views but also humanize the subjects we encounter in the process.
To that end, we try to use what is called "person-first" language, rather than "identity-first" language. For instance, rather than say "John is disabled but loves to play basketball," we might say "John is a student with learning disabilities who likes to play basketball." This makes the person central, not their disability. This can also be helpful for flattening the assumptions about political and racial identities, by describing a person’s qualifications and background before their political leanings, race, sex, religion, gender, or sexual identity. So, we might say that a newly elected member of Congress had served on city council, graduated from Yale Law School, and won the Republican nomination for House District 5 before we tell readers that she is a black woman who grew up in a Muslim family.
Writing this way isn't always easy and can occasionally be cumbersome or unclear, but we'll do our best to use person-first language without sacrificing clarity whenever we can.
Specifically, opinions about abortion. In general, people who believe abortion is the taking of an innocent life and believe in more government regulation of abortion describe themselves as "pro-life," while people who believe abortion decisions should be left to the woman describe themselves as "pro-choice."
Many on both sides object to this language. Some "pro-life" people refer to the pro-choice side as "pro-abortion," while some "pro-choice" people believe "pro-life" misrepresents the position of people who might support capital punishment and so prefer the term “anti-abortion.” What we've found is that pro-choice Americans strongly object to being described as pro-abortion, as many "pro-choice" Americans would not opt for abortions themselves, nor do they want to see more abortions; they simply don’t want the government to regulate or prohibit abortions.
Meanwhile, I've yet to encounter a pro-life person who is made uncomfortable by the descriptor "anti-abortion," as they do want fewer abortions and they do want more government prohibition of abortions. In fact, I’ve sometimes found this is the preferred description for quite a few people who oppose abortion. Indeed, pro-choice and anti-abortion actually feel like much more accurate terms than "pro-choice" and "pro-life." But there is another problem there, as “pro” and “anti” come with their own positive and negative connotations that can create imbalances.
Given that there are a lot of anti-abortion advocates who prefer the term pro-life, and for the same reasons we might refer to someone by their preferred pronouns, we also may refer to an organization or person as pro-life if that is their preference.
Going forward, we will generally defer to the language a group uses for themselves, but will exercise our own judgment in using the terms pro-choice, anti-abortion, abortion rights supporters, or abortion rights opponents where appropriate.
In a similar attempt at evenhandedness, we will typically use the terms "embryo" and "fetus" to refer to unborn children when speaking in scientific or legal terms. An embryo is the stage of human development up to eight weeks, while a fetus is the stage from eight weeks until birth. However, using language like "unborn child" or "unborn baby" might be more appropriate in some contexts, like in places where "fetus" may devalue the emotional sentiment of a character in a story. For instance, we may describe research showing coronavirus is dangerous for a fetus, while we may say an expectant mother feared what the future could hold for her unborn child. This is similar to how public radio addresses this issue, which we found quite compelling.
Once this newsletter goes out, we'll be publishing these editorial policies on our website and continue to update things as our decisions evolve.
In the meantime, what do you think? What other language choices should we be considering? What other changes would you suggest? Or reject? Reply to this email and let us know. We'll continue to take feedback and update our guidelines going forward.
And don't forget: If you like this kind of transparency, and believe in these efforts for neutrality, please consider becoming a subscriber to support our work.
Isaac & the Tangle team