Policy Corner: Is 'Downstate' an offensive word?
With every word we print, we risk offending someone.
Especially now, when people are more polarized than ever -- and on more than just the traditional hot-button topics.
We've given considerable thought to avoiding the use of vilifying or dismissive words on either side of the abortion debate, the vaccine debate, the gender identity debate, political parties and more.
One thing we've debated at various times over the years is the word "Downstate" to describe the central and southern portions of Illinois.
In New York state, there is New York and Upstate. In Minnesota, you have the Twin Cities and Outstate. In Illinois it's Chicago and Downstate.
But a note from a suburbanite who used to live in areas hundreds of miles south of where he lives now in DuPage County has prompted a productive discussion among the top editors of the Daily Herald.
His email to us said the term "Downstate" is offensive to people who live outside the Chicago area, that it implies that anyone not living in the northeast corner of Illinois is inferior, that anything south of Chicago and the suburbs is the land forgotten by politicians.
He suggested we use more precise geographical references -- counties and municipalities in headlines and stories.
He suggested that we not take his word for it and ask residents of non-Chicago-suburban people what they think.
So I did.
In addition to the Daily Herald, we publish about two dozen other newspapers from just south of Springfield to Carbondale. We happen to love that area. I asked our newsroom leaders who have lived their lives in these communities what they think.
Renee Trappe, who oversees our Southern Illinois newspapers, has a foot in both worlds. She said she never refers to her coverage area as "Downstate." Why would she? That would only disenfranchise her readers. Renee also lives in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. So she knows to refer to northeastern Illinois as Chicago or its suburbs.
Our suburban transplant in DuPage County makes a very good point. We can be a lot more specific. And where we can, we will -- perhaps setting up Illinois in quadrants, which feels less us vs. them.
But since the Daily Herald is focused specifically on the six counties that ring Chicago (and our audience is largely in the Chicago suburbs) we invariably will compare our region to others. We'll compare how we voted in state and national elections to how people in Chicago voted and to how people in the rest of the state voted.
It's not as important to our readers how people in Macoupin or Williamson or Saline County voted as it is how people in Cook, Lake, DuPage, Kane, McHenry and Will counties did.
It largely boils down to one's perspective. And we'll try to be more sensitive to that.