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'Slur or slang': The story behind the 'n-word' story in today's Viewpoints section

Sometimes stories make their way into the paper with very little discussion.  A reporter goes out to cover an event, writes it up, it goes through the normal editing process and is published within hours (or, on the web, within minutes).

 Others -- investigative projects, for example -- get a great deal more consideration.  Multiple editors, and sometimes  lawyers, read it and consult with each other.  Eventually, the story is published and when it finally appears in print we feel as if we've been through a difficult childbirth.  

It's a rarity when a feature story -- rather than a hard-news story -- falls into that second category.  But that's the case with today's Viewpoints cover story by Emma Sapong, which takes up the history and changing nature of what is commonly known as "the 'n' word."

Emma, a Liberian-American business reporter for The News, was intrigued by recent local news events in which that word spurred controversy.  She had also become aware of the word's role in rap music and its slang usage by African-American young people.   She worked with Urban Affairs Editor Rod Watson to develop the story, and both did an excellent job.  

Here is the Viewpoints story, along with her sidebar explaining her own experiences.

The story had a long gestation period because Emma, Rod and I had different ideas about how to present it. It was originally slated to run in Spotlight but moved to Viewpoints because Rod and I both thought it would have a more natural home there.  Someone, along the way, had the idea of Emma's sidebar, which added depth and a personal tone to the piece.

 But the biggest point of discussion centered on how to use the various forms of the 'n' word in the story.

Rod strongly favored using the full word throughout the story, without the usual dashes; he thought it was pandering to do otherwise.  We ought to give our readers credit for being able to handle seeing the word in print. Emma leaned that way, too.

 I disagreed, believing that many News readers would be offended, if not outraged.  I knew that I would have that reaction myself.  The word is just too fraught with pain, and The News is not part of the inner circle which can use the word freely.  (Emma describes this dynamic in her piece.)

One step we took along the way was to discuss the issue with our diversity advisory council, most of whose members are African-American readers of The News.  They were unanimous: Use dashes.  

I was glad to hear it but, the truth is, I could not have countenanced doing anything else.  We did, at Rod's suggestion, differentiate between the two uses of the word by using a final letter of 'r' or 'a,' along with dashes in the middle.

Meanwhile, I'd become involved enough that I worked with Emma on a near-final editing of the story and wrote the headline words myself, something I do only rarely.

As I told Emma, the ending of her personal sidebar brought tears to my eyes.  I'm proud to have this work in today's News.

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