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Terminology matters: Tackling cultural nuance in the UK media

January 27, 2022 | By Nina Goswami, Creative Diversity Lead and journalist – BBC @NinaTheScoop

When we talk about minority groups should we use BIPOC, POC, something different or nothing at all? It’s a question posed in America many times since the death of George Floyd in May 2020 – from Newsweek to The New York Times.

His murder sparked a similar debate across the pond over the United Kingdom’s equivalent acronym: Should BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) be used by British broadcasters?

Taking collective action

At the end of 2021, four of the UK’s major broadcasters formulated an answer. They committed to avoid using the collective term in their corporate communications, content and editorial news content. Instead, they would use more specific terms where available.

For Miranda Wayland, the BBC’s Head of Creative and Workforce Diversity and Inclusion, the departure from the catch-all term allows for a greater acknowledgement of the experience of people from different ethnic backgrounds.

“As a creative industry we are focused on increasing representation, so our content reflects society,” she said. “At the heart of representation is how we recognize people’s varied lived experiences and their identity. The more specific we are when describing someone’s heritage, the better we represent them. In turn, we create more inclusive and relevant content for our audiences.”

UK broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5/Viacom CBS UK – agreed to avoid “wherever possible” the BAME acronym following a report the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity. Commissioned by the BBC, the study stated that “A major concern, apparent in recent public responses to BAME, is that it homogenises culturally distinct social groups.”

A question of trust

Through interviews and audience research, the report’s authors found there was a lack of trust around the term BAME because of a belief that it has been used to hide failings in the representation of specific ethnic groups. They wrote: “Several interviewees illustrated this point by saying organisations are quick to announce hitting ‘BAME targets’ but what does that mean if there is still massive black under representation or east Asian representation.”

The researchers did acknowledge, however, that it would not be realistic to remove BAME terminology altogether because it is widely used in society. However, where BAME must be used, content-makers will strive to ensure that any use of the term is accompanied by an explanation. This will be achieved, for example, by stating that ”data for ethnic groups is unavailable.” Another solution is writing out the acronym in full – “black, Asian and minority ethnic” – to recognize the constituent groups that make up the collective term.

Sarita Malik, Professor of Media and Culture at Brunel University London and Academic Lead on the Report, said broadcasters need to acknowledge the importance of language as part of wider work to tackle racial disparities.

“Language is a really important issue for media and cultural organizations to look at when trying to tackle inequalities,” she said. “At the heart of the issue is a power dynamic; a power dynamic between those who have the power to label and those who are labelled. Our research identified a mostly negative sentiment towards the grouping of people under collective terms.”

She added that “Committing to use language in more culturally nuanced ways can help to deepen understandings of different ethnic groups. This is one of the ways in which trust can be built with audiences.”

Supporting cultural nuance

As Professor Malik observes, broadcasters need to give their content-makers the right support and resources so they can get their language right and add nuance to their work. At the BBC, the content-makers’ inclusion toolkit seeks to provide such support. Tools include Ipsos MORI’s Language Matters audience research, which echoes the findings of the BAME report by concluding that “specificity around identity is key”.

“In communicating, we often seek to oversimplify. But, when it comes to identity, ensuring the full nuances of someone’s identity are acknowledged as important,” said the Ipsos MORI researchers. “We see this when it comes to how ethnic and national identity interact with one another and how individuals navigate between these two aspects of their identity.”

Participants in the research succinctly illustrated the point. “I always say I’m Indian even though I am a British citizen. I am proud of my Heritage,” he said. Another explained: “My identity shouldn’t be defined by what ‘colour’ I am. I’m an individual and part of a diverse community with a diverse heritage.”

We are not the same

Understanding this type of nuance is at the heart of the BBC Audience’s BAME: We’re Not the Same report. It explores the culture, identity and heritage of the six largest ethnic minority groups in England and Wales – Indian, Pakistani, Black African, Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Chinese.

BBC Senior Audience Planner Helen Xa-Thomas began work on the report after noticing that content-makers had no tools to help them move away from “bucket terminology” and address the “nuance” within groups.

“All our identities are so multifaceted and complex. We are never just one entity of our identity,” she explained. “Labeling is a symptom of the shortcuts that we use as an industry. We all think very much demographic first and that can be problematic. For example, when we say ‘youth’ as if all young people are exactly the same.”

She continued: “It’s about understanding, culture and identity for different groups and making us more consciously aware of those differences. Because we are not the same.”

The BBC Audience’s report is backed by the Corporation’s Director of Creative Diversity, June Sarpong, who encouraged people “to grab a coffee and take a moment out to read this insightful BBC Audiences research”.

“This report starts to unpack ‘BAME’ because a ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t help us appreciate the complexity and richness of identities that fall within it,” she wrote in her foreword to the report. “One of the barriers we face when seeking to address the diversity deficit is the limits of our own perspective.”

She also pointed out that “The catch-all term of BAME may feel a like a convenient box for those interested in counting people. But when you fail to acknowledge the difference in people’s lived experience and history then people won’t feel like they count.”

Universal takeaways

As stated previously, four of the UK’s major broadcasters have committed to ensuring that people feel better represented by avoiding the use of BAME.

Marcus Ryder, Head of External Consultancies at Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, applauded the decision to adopt the report’s recommendation. He believes there are wider themes that can be taken from the research and applied by content-makers – trust, transparency and the need for bravery.

“As a Black person, when I see the Covid reports I am thinking ‘how does it affect Black people?’ When a journalist just stops short and says People of Colour, it feels as if they’re not representing me properly,’ he said. “So even if you don’t have the information you should acknowledge it as you’re acknowledging that question of how it affects me.

“Admit what you don’t know. If the story was ‘Covid affects People of Color or BAME more according to the latest statistics’ but there’s no breakdown, then say that they have not provided us with more detailed information as to how it affects individual specific races.”

Ryder also said content-makers need to ensure that they are not using BAME, or BIPOC or People of Color because they are “scared to use the term white”.

“Sometimes collective terms are used as a way to avoid using the word white and so we should also ensure that we aren’t just using a term as a way to avoid white,” he explained.

“Lots of studies have shown that white people often think of themselves as being raceless. If we want to have a serious conversation about race, then we need to ensure that we don’t just talk about race of non-white people.”

What each of the reports and research illustrate is that catch-all terminology erodes the trust of the audience, which could cause them to tune out (or worse, log off). As we address increasingly diverse audiences, there is an altogether reasonable expectation that our language, and its use, adapts.

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