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By Fernando Dovalina
(Dovalina retired from The Houston Chronicle in 2000 after a 37-year career in journalism that included being The Chronicle’s assistant managing editor for international coverage. He can be reached at





• Do you cover minority affairs all year long? Or just Black History Month, Juneteenth, Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day, Chinese New Year and the Gay Pride Parade?

• Do minorities find themselves quoted in your stories, including stories that have nothing to do with minorities? Remember that African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans are business owners, professors, bankers, soldiers, students, scientists and consumers. Make sure your source list is varied enough to include them.

• Do you always talk to the same so-called minority leaders when you want quotes? Remember that just as there are no Anglo leaders who speak for all Anglos, there are no black leaders or Hispanic leaders who speak for all blacks or all Hispanics. Remember that the ones who are always available for a quote have their own agendas, just as white politicians do. There are militant minority spokespersons and moderates and conservatives. Don't assume that the ready-and-willing-to-talk are always representative of all the members of a minority group. And consider this: If your stories describe someone as a black community leader or a black activist, do you also have a list of people you describe as white community leaders and white activists?

• Do you cover minority affairs with the same respect as stories about white activities, or is there a smirk or a wink evident in the way the story was written? In other words, do you describe some activities by some racial and religious groups as quaint, exotic or far-out?

• Do minorities find themselves in your photos? And if they do, are they always doing “minority” things, or do you picture them jogging, standing in line for tickets, putting out a fire and resting after saving a life?

• In your coverage of fashion or what students are wearing to class today, are some of your models black, Hispanic, Asian-American or Native American? In your best-dressed lists, are some of the winners black, Hispanic, Asian-American or Native American? If you run a series on the best cooks in town, are they all Anglo? When you list for your readers the best place to eat a hot dog, the different kinds of CD or book specialty stores in town and the best repertory theaters in town, did you consider establishments owned by minorities or in minority neighborhoods or specializing in products that appeal to minorities or people who speak other languages besides English, or did you stick to Anglo businesses and Anglo neighborhoods and stores that sell products that appeal mostly to Anglo readers? In your man- and woman-in-the-street feature, are some of them men and women who happen to be minorities?

• Do you absolutely have to say that a black person or Hispanic or Asian or Native American is the first of his or her race to have attained the distinction in question? There are still some situations where history has been made, and it needs to be pointed out. But certainly the second and third black to get a certain job is no longer news. Sometimes, of course, the news is that it took so long for a black female or a Hispanic male to be named the first head of a city or college department.

• In crime stories, is your mention that the criminals are “black” or “Hispanic” necessary? Ask yourself, “If this criminal had been Anglo, would I have included that in the story?”

• “Welfare recipient” is not a synonym for African-Americans, or Hispanics. Neither is “public housing resident,” nor “poor American.” Although a larger percentage of blacks and Hispanics are poor, when compared with whites, most people who are poor are white. It is also true that most welfare recipients are white. And for that matter, teenage pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse are problems that cut across all racial boundaries. In photos of these groups, make sure a diversity is represented.

• Do you always assume that “American” means white? Do you assume that all Hispanics are from Latin America and that all people with Asian faces were born abroad? If so, do you assume that all white-looking people are American? In a university town, as one example, that would be foolish. In interviews with Hispanics and Asian-Americans who have accents, do you refer to “your country” before finding out if they were born in this country?

• If a public official uses an ethnic slur, do you let it pass, or do you get public reaction from minority groups?

• Do you allow accents to be ridiculed? If French and Hungarian accents are “sexy” and “debonair,” why should Japanese and Chinese accents be considered “funny”? Why are Italian accents “charming” and English accents “cultured” but Spanish accents are always “thick”? Is it even pertinent to mention accents?

• Do you assume that all blacks are African-Americans or Africans? Remember that culturally some blacks are Jamaicans and Haitians and Brazilians. Remember that some blacks may also be Hispanic, that many Hispanics are not Catholic, that some Latin Americans are more German and Italian than Spanish, that not all people who live south of the Rio Grande speak Spanish. Brazilians speak Portuguese, Jamaicans speak English and Haitians speak French and Creole. The people of Suriname speak Dutch. Some people in Latin America do not speak any European tongues. They still speak their indigenous languages. In Peru, for instance, Spanish and Quechua are official languages. Remember that to people who live south of the Rio Grande the term “America” does not refer to the United States alone. It refers to the hemisphere, and they, too, are Americans. They refer to U.S. citizens as “norteamericanos.”



• When you depict blacks in stories, photos or cartoons, are they always committing crimes, playing basketball, dressed in track clothes, listening to a boom box, singing hip-hop, dancing or eating watermelon and fried chicken? And when you refer to a black person, do you merely say “a black,” as opposed to “a black banker” or “a black businesswoman”?

• Do you needlessly use the words “black” and “dark” as negative terms in stories about race? Words and phrases such as “blackmail,” “blacklist” and “blacken the reputation” will not disappear just because some people find them offensive. They are part of the language and can be effectively and safely used. But be cautious about using them if their use undermines your credibility.

• Do you avoid terms of offense, such as “nigger,” “colored,” “boy,” “buck,” “shine,” “boot” and “spade”? Quotes should not be changed, of course, but is the quote compelling enough to justify the use of one of those words? It would be justified if a senator used them, but maybe not if a mechanic did.



• When you depict Hispanics in stories, photos or cartoons, are they always drinking beer at a parking lot, sitting on their front steps, walking down the middle of a street, sleeping by a cactus or playing giant guitars and wearing huge sombreros? When you refer to a Hispanic person, do you merely say “a Hispanic,” or “a Mexican-American” as opposed to “a Hispanic insurance salesman” or “a Cuban-American restaurant owner.”

• Do you avoid pejorative terms, unless the need is compelling? Are you aware that “wetback,” “bean bandit,” “Frito bandito,” and even Pat Buchanan's “Jose” can offend? Did you know that the term “Mexican standoff” is offensive? The term is used to refer to a deadlock or any fight in which neither side wins. That seems innocent enough, but the term is often used in a derogatory manner, to refer to the deadlock between unwilling combatants. The book, “Picturesque Expressions,” conjectures that “Mexican standoff” originally was a racial slur and that American cowboys used it to describe confrontations in which one could get away alive without engaging in serious fighting. Though your intention may be to produce colorful writing, the Hispanic reader may see another intention. He will want to know just what you think “Mexican” adds to the phrase.

• Do you use the phrase “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant”? If so, do you recall using it for Germans or Canadians who are illegally here? Would “suspected undocumented immigrant” work just as well? (See separate discussion of the terms.)

• Are you careful to avoid stereotypes about Hispanics? Hispanics joke among themselves about Hispanic stereotypes, but that doesn't mean you can get away with it in a story, headline, photo or graphic. Don't say about a Hispanic that he will finish the job mañana; don't draw a Hispanic with a sombrero asleep by a saguaro; don’t paint all Hispanics as guilty of machismo.

• Mexicans do not speak Mexican and most do not have Mexican names. Most Mexicans speak Spanish, and they have Spanish names. Of course, some languages native to Mexico could be said to be Mexican languages, but it would be far better to be precise and call them Maya, Nahuatl or Yaqui. Also, you could say that someone spoke Mexican Spanish, in the same way that the British might say we speak American English. There also are some names that are indigenous to Mexico and could be said to be Mexican names. Xochitl is one popular name given to female children.

• Never assume that a Spanish name, because it sounds like an English name, is spelled similarly. Reuben is usually, but not always, Ruben in Spanish; Rudolph is usually Rodolfo, not Rudolpho; Raphael is usually Rafael; Adolph is usually Adolfo; Vincent is usually Vicente—that’s right, no “n”; Anna is usually Ana; Augustine is usually Agustin. And it's usually Dolores, not Delores.
Caesar is usually Cesar; Helena is usually Elena; Stephen or Steven is usually Esteban; Estella is usually Estela; Xavier is usually Javier; Louis is usually Luis; Mark or Marcus is usually Marcos. Never assume that a name is a woman’s name simply because it ends in “a” or is usually given to a woman; never assume that a name is a man's name because it ends in “o.” Rosario is a name given to either sex. So is Guadalupe, or Lupe, and Inez. Jose Maria is a man’s name. The best way to get the correct spelling of a Spanish name is to ask that individual to write it for you. Even phonetic spellings lead to misunderstandings because, for instance, to the English-speaking person, the Spanish pronunciation of the letter “e” may sound like “a,” and the Spanish pronunciation of the letter “i” sounds like “e.”
The custom of using both father's and mother's surnames in many Spanish-speaking countries gives journalists a hard time. Normally, the father's surname is followed by the mother's surname. In all likelihood, Carlos Diaz Moreno's father is a member of the Diaz clan, and his mother is a Moreno. The wisest policy is to check with the individual, though, because exceptions abound. For instance, Jose Lopez Portillo, the former president of Mexico, did not use his mother's surname, except on formal occasions. Lopez Portillo was his father's surname. Some Spanish-surnamed individuals hyphenate their names, but they are few in number. Still others are dropping the Old World custom of using two last names.
So, what do you do if you run across a person with two surnames and can't call. Either use both names, which is correct, no matter what the situation, or use the first surname, which at worst is incomplete. In the case of Carlos Diaz Moreno, you would use either Diaz Moreno or Diaz.

• Perhaps nothing in journalism arouses the ire of minorities than the identification, by race, of a criminal suspect or anybody else in a negative story. They accuse us of not doing the same thing when the suspect is white. They will say, “How come the guy who killed Versace was often identified as Filipino, but the guy suspected in the Atlanta bombing case is never identified as Anglo?”
Some advice: If race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation and political party affiliation are pertinent to the story, that information should be in the story. But leave out the information if it is not pertinent to the story. Ask yourself if you would identify a white Irish-American Catholic heterosexual as such in the same situation. In a hate crime or one committed during a civil rights march, for instance, the fact that the suspect is Anglo or Hispanic is pertinent.
In the case of the Atlanta murders of black children, for instance, investigators, the media and the people in the community long believed that the killings were racially motivated. But the suspect eventually charged is black. That information was pertinent, even though both the killer and the victims were African-American.
Leave out the information if it serves no purpose, such as help catch the individual. Will a suspect be more readily apprehended if the only description in your story is that he is Mexican-American? Of course, in cases where a suspect is still at large and you have other identification besides race, such as height, weight, complexion, color of hair and eyes and description of getaway car, then by all means, run all the information. It might lead to his arrest.
Leave out the information if you are not absolutely confident of your source of information. Do you honestly think the policeman or justice of the peace asked the suspect if he was Mexican, as opposed to, say, Salvadoran or Guatemalan? Did he assume the suspect is Mexican because he had a Spanish accent? Speaking of which, do you really think your source knows the difference between a Spanish accent and a Farsi or Arabic accent? Also remember that when you are identifying a Hispanic by name in a negative story, nine times out of ten, you are already telling the readers the suspect is Hispanic. You don't have to hit them over the head with the information. The same is often true of Asian names.

• Do you use Latino or Chicano or Mexican-American or Mexican or Hispanic? The general rule regarding what to call Hispanics is: There is no general rule. Here are some personal thoughts about each of these terms. Maybe, they'll help out a bit.
Chicano. The origin of the term is clouded in history, but it has come to be applied particularly to militant Mexican-Americans. Since the 1960s faded, so has “Chicano” to some degree. Some Mexican-Americans, especially older ones, always found the term offensive; and it does not apply to other Hispanics, such as Cubans and Puerto Ricans.
Mexican-American. This refers to United States citizens of Mexican descent.
Mexican. A person with citizenship in the federal republic of Mexico.
Avoid use of the phrases “Mexican national” and “Mexican citizen.” The second words in each of those phrases are superfluous, and some Mexicans see them as an attempt to soften the impact of the word “Mexican,” which in earlier times, sometimes was used pejoratively. There was a time when the word was used by some insensitive folks to refer to Mexican-Americans, as well. (Today, in much the same way, we sometimes erroneously call “Vietnamese” people who are American-born and whose parents came from Vietnam — and even worse, those whose parents came from Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.)
Hispanic. Originally, this referred to things Spanish or Spanish and Portuguese. Today, in the United States, it is used as a catch-all word for all people in this country, whether citizens or not, of some Spanish origin, such as those whose ancestry is from those lands south of the United States: Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, etc. Remember, however, that not all those lands have a Spanish character, language or background. Brazil and Jamaica, for instance, are not Hispanic countries. In addition, not all citizens of countries where Spanish is spoken consider themselves Hispanic. Argentina has a large Italian-Argentine population, for instance. On the other hand, many of them may consider themselves Hispanic, nonetheless. It is always better to ask if you intend to use the term. The Census Bureau helped spread the use of ``Hispanic,'' but some Hispanics consider it voguish, offensive and far too broad a classification.
Latino. This is the latest label to catch on with large segments of the Hispanic population. Some Latinos like that term for a number of reasons, including the fact that it is a Spanish word, unlike Hispanic. It is considered by some a shortened version of “latinoamericano,” a term widely used in Mexico, Central America and South America. But to some women, it is sexist because the plural form, which is masculine, is used to refer to all Hispanics. The singular, female form of the word is “Latina.”



• When you depict Asians in stories, photos or cartoons, are they always buck-toothed, myopic, wearing thick glasses, extremely slant-eyed, kamikaze pilots dropping consumer products on America, taking care of a garden, chauffeuring somebody to work or behind the counter at a laundry? And when you refer to Asians, do you refer to “a Japanese-American,” or “a Vietnamese,” as opposed to “a Japanese-American government major” or “a Vietnamese-American sports equipment saleswoman”?

• Are you careful about the use of such words in reference to Japanese and Japanese-Americans as “invasion,” (fashion invasion) “war,” (trade war) “wily,” “crafty” and “clever.” Even “industrious” can be offensive, if it calls to mind the WWII stereotypes of mindless, working drones. Do you recognize that these words, when used to refer to Asians, may be loaded? — Serene, quiet, shy, reserved, smiling, stocky, buck-toothed, myopic, delicate, obedient, passive, stolid, docile, unquestioning, servile, subservient, submissive, sinister, polite, mystical, inscrutable, philosophical. Do you use the term “exotic” only for Asian activities? Or is a French wine-tasting also “exotic”?

• Do you recognize these as racial slurs: “Jap,” “Chink,” “Chinaman,” “Nip,” “Nipper,” “Slant-eyes,” “Gook”? These are not nicknames. Avoid sexist-racist terms, such as “China doll” and “Dragon lady.”

• Do you avoid the term “Oriental” to refer to people? Though many Asians do not find the term offensive, most Asian Americans prefer to be known by their ethnic origin.



• Do you know that many Native Americans are offended by the term “Indian”? Nonetheless, many still call themselves “Indians.” The best advice to a journalist: Find out what name is preferred by the person you are writing about and use it, whether it be Lakota, Seminole, or Menominee. In recent times, many Native American nations have abandoned the warlike names attached to them by other tribes, by their conquerors and by historians and taken on more traditional names. The Sioux refer to themselves as Lakota; the Chippewa as the Anishinabe and the Papago as the Tohono O'Odham.

• Did you know that Native American women did not and still do not have the subservient role often assigned to them by the movies? The women played serious roles as leaders, both in the political and religious structures of many tribes. In the Iroquois, they owned all assets and controlled the war-making decisions.

• Do you think that Columbus discovered America? That's as offensive to many Native Americans as it would be to you if someone came to your house, declared it discovered and claimed it as his own.

• Did you know that Native Americans in this hemisphere cultivated much of what we consider essential to our culture? We owe the potato, corn, chocolate, the avocado, the tomato, the pepper and vanilla, to name a few, to Native Americans. Without the tomato, what would Italian cuisine be like? Without the pepper, what would Czechuan, Vietnamese, Thai and Indian cuisine be like? Without chocolate, where would the Swiss be?

• Do you recognize that the following terms may be offensive to Native Americans? Wampum, wigwam, heap big, Indian giver, wooden Indian, scalping and warpath.

• Heavy drinking is not synonymous with Native Americans. Native Americans do not wear costumes.



• Does your newspaper use the words “lifestyle” and “sexual preference” in reference to GLBT people? There is no homosexual lifestyle any more than there is a heterosexual lifestyle. And the variety in the lives of GLBT people shows that there is no uniformity in their lives. As for “sexual preference,” humans do not choose their sexuality. Use “sexual orientation” instead of “sexual preference.”

• The terms “faggot,” “fag,” “homo,” “queer,” “queen” and “dyke” have long histories as pejorative terms, although some of today’s gays and lesbians have chosen to claim them in the same way that some blacks have claimed the “n” word. If they are used, they should be used with extreme caution. They are still extremely offensive if used as epithets.

• A cross-dresser is a person who enjoys wearing clothing usually worn by the opposite sex. Cross-dressing is not necessarily associated with sexual orientation. Many straight men are cross-dressers. And, of course, many women have worn male clothing over the years without being referred to as “cross-dressers.” The term “transvestite” has become quaint and unspecific as the understanding of sexuality has evolved. It is best to avoid. “Drag” refers to clothing of the opposite sex. A drag performer, or drag queen, or drag king, is someone who entertains while wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex. Drag performers are not necessarily transgender people or cross-dressers. A transsexual is a person who identifies himself or herself with the opposite sex and takes on the physical characteristics of that sex, sometimes having surgery to acquire more physical characteristics of the other sex. A transsexual person can be of any sexual orientation. Intersex people are those born with the sex chromosomes, external sex organs or internal reproductive organs not considered standard for either male or female. Transgender is the umbrella terms used to refer to transsexuals, cross-dressers, drag performers and intersex people. Always ask transgender people what personal pronouns they prefer to use for themselves.

• Gay rights workers want equal civil rights for themselves. Their opponents use the politically charged term “special rights.” Avoid it, except in direct quotes. Use the neutral terms “gay civil rights” and “gay rights.”

• Your newspaper does not have to quote opponents of the gay civil rights movement every time you have a story about a GLBT event. Save the opposing views for controversial issues, unless it’s your custom to quote the KKK for every Martin Luther King celebration. Some of you may argue that the comparison is not apt. I say, wait 20 years and see how opponents of gay civil rights will be seen in 2025.

• In referring to a gay or lesbian who is out, do not refer to them as “admitted,” “acknowledged,” “avowed,” “practicing” or “confessed” homosexuals. Usually, “openly,” as in “openly gay,” is unnecessary in a story, unless you need to point out the singularity of the person, such as “the Rev. V. Gene Robinson was elected as the Episcopal church’s first openly gay bishop.”


• The American citizenry includes Muslims, people who came from Arab countries and people whose family origins are in Arabic countries. They should be treated, depicted and quoted in stories as any other American. That does not mean going to them only in stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and 9/11. Include them in stories about the arts, business and other news coverage.

• When writing about terrorism in general, do not forget to include Timothy McVeigh, white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and other groups with such a history.

• Do not treat Arabic or Muslim customs as quaint. Give them the respect you would give those of any other society or religion, including yours.

• Be specific in identifying terrorists. Avoid as much as possible the blanket term “Islamic terrorists” or “Muslim terrorists” because they link an entire religion to heinous acts. We didn’t refer to IRA terrorists as Catholic terrorists. By the same token, use such terms as “Al-Qaeda terrorists,” or whatever specific label is appropriate.

• Make a distinction among the various majority Muslim states. Do not lump all Muslims or their attributes in such catch-all phrases as “the Muslim world” or “the Muslim character.”

• Arabs come from Arabic-speaking nations in southwestern Asia and northern Africa, a region we call the Middle East. But not everybody in the Middle East is Arabic. The Arabic language is one of the great unifying influences among Arabs, but there are colloquial differences. Not all Arabs are Muslim; not all Muslims are Arabic. Most Arab-Americans happen to be Catholic or Orthodox Christians, although in some specific areas, the majority may be Muslim.

• Iran is not an Arab country. Iranians are descended from the Persians and have a different language and history from Arabs. They speak Farsi, for the most part.

• Because Arabic and English sounds are so different, the spelling and pronunciation of Arabic words and names has been a problem for journalists. AP style has evolved over the years, having changed the spelling of Koran to Quran recently, as an example.

• Most Arabs identify with their nationality, rather than with a particular ethnic group and are united more by language and culture than race. There is no uniform physical description for Arabs, and the United States has at times classified them as African, Asian, white, European and Arab.

• Prominent Arab Americans include Helen Thomas, Doug Flutie, Casey Kasem and Christa McAuliffe.

• Avoid such stereotypes as “oil-rich,” “nomadic,” “desert people.” Most Arab-Americans do not wear traditional clothing. Be sure your photos reflect that.

• The Quran teaches nonviolence. Remember that most religions have been used at one time or another to justify violence.

• Most Muslims are not Arabs. Arabs constitute only 12 percent of Muslims worldwide.

• The two main branches of Islam are Shi’a and Sunni. Most Muslims are Sunni. Differences arise over origin of the two branches.



• Do minorities and women find themselves represented on your staff — and not just working the most junior of jobs? And are they trained, developed and promoted as are nonminorities?

• Do you tolerate bigotry in racially or sexually offensive jokes and slurs in the newsroom? If the jokes express a perceived inferiority of a group of people, they should never be tolerated. And remember that despite the pervasiveness of jokes brought on by news events, such as the Clinton affair, an off-color joke could land you in lots of trouble.

• Does responsibility for pluralism at your paper sit with the editor alone, or does it also belong to the various department heads?

• If there is a complaint of discrimination or harassment, is there a specific plan set out to address the grievance?



• Do you assume that Christianity is the norm and that everybody is a Christian?

• Do you consider all religions that are unfamiliar to you cults or sects?



• If you belong to any of the various racial or religious or sexual orientation minority groups or you are a woman, do you cheapen the civil rights struggle of your brothers and sisters by crying “harassment” or “discrimination” every time a personality problem or professional disagreement comes up? If you are hypersensitive, you may turn a nonracial problem into a racial problem.

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