The Observer’s commitment to justice

Editor’s note

Nathan Lesch, Executive Editor

After hearing that the sickening, oft-criticized name of the Washington NFL franchise, the Redskins, was being changed, I knew the Cleveland’s MLB team’s days as the Indians were numbered. Thank goodness for that; personally, I’m a big fan of renaming the team the Guardians, after our city’s majestic, imposing statues. This string of name changes in professional sports didn’t sprout up out of nowhere. Activists have been fighting for many years to change the names of institutions—whether they be professional sports or otherwise—that perpetuate racist stereotypes, honor appalling individuals or whitewash American history. As a newspaper, we at The Observer have also tried to become increasingly aware of the type of language we use, and have been working hard to improve our presentation of the news.

I’ve heard a number of people complain about this movement to change institutions’ and monuments’ names. Generally, these people say that those institutions and names are a part of American history; getting rid of them is getting rid of our past. It’s about “heritage, not hate,” they say.

I think about it differently. There’s a difference between remembrance and reverence. We can remember America’s history through our education, where we learn the good and the bad of our country’s past. Institutions and monuments provide no learning opportunities. They are solely for reverence, to be viewed upon with awe. We put up a monument when we want to honor an individual or an event, and we name institutions after people that made significant achievements. 

Racist, sexist and homophobic individuals and terms should not be revered, and thus should not have monuments named after them.

Former Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu described why these monuments should not be revered much more eloquently than I could.

In a speech addressing New Orleans after the city’s last Confederate monument had been removed, Landrieu said: “Consider these monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?”

I find Landrieu’s vivid description especially striking.

The purpose of this piece, though, is not to provide a robust history about the renaming movement, nor is it to provide any greater depth about why renaming is important; if you don’t understand why we must fight oppressive, imposing monuments after reading Landrieu’s statement, then I don’t think The Observer is the right newspaper for you.

As executive editor, one of my responsibilities is to update our readers about The Observer’s values and actions. 

Today, I write to tell you all that we, at The Observer, value names. We know about language’s positive abilities to shape ideas and incite change, as well as its negative abilities to cause pain and make people feel small. We know rhetoric dictates remembrance and reverence. We know words can build or tear down monuments.

The Observer pledges to use our platform to pursue justice in the news—and this is not a responsibility we take lightly.

As a result, in the last year, we have updated and changed significant aspects of our style and standards.

We began by improving the way we represented groups and individuals in our publications. We started by quietly allowing stylized names—a change that was long overdue—in an effort to better convey our subjects’ identities and, as a result, better serve our readers. For a similar reason, we began capitalizing Black in reference to people of African descent or origin living in America. While we recognize that the experience of being Black in America is not monolithic, we believe this change better reflects aspects of shared cultural and historical identity.

This past semester, we began adding trigger warnings to our articles in an effort to help our readers either avoid reliving distressing events or mentally prepare themselves for disturbing information. Especially in this time of high anxiety, we felt that this was an apt change.

Our most recent policy change, which we began last week and are still working to perfect, is including hyperlinks to relevant information cited in our articles. Given the steadily increasing stream of fake or inaccurate information in the world, we felt that The Observer needed to increase transparency. It’s a matter of journalistic integrity. While all of our articles still undergo three rounds of rigorous editing, we recognize that sometimes our readers may just want to view information at its source; to learn and explore for themselves.

We recognize that these changes are merely a starting point. The Observer can—and will—continually strive to better serve both our readers and the subjects of our coverage. We will shape ideas and incite positive change. We will remember our past, not revere it. We will tear down monuments. We will promote justice.