Let’s have a look, now, at the AP Stylebook, the bible of journalism style not just for the AP but for most news organizations in the country, which develop their own rules on certain capitalizations or the Oxford comma but default to the AP much of the time. In the Stylebook I have handy, it says on page 234: “Do not use racially derogatory terms unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to the story.”
The New York Times stylebook, under “slurs,” says the following: “The epithets of bigotry ordinarily have no place in the newspaper. Even in ironic or self-mocking quotations about a speaker’s own group (in rap lyrics, for example), their use erodes the worthy inhibition against brutality in public discourse. If an exception is essential to readers’ understanding of a highly newsworthy crime, conflict or personality, the decision should first be discussed thoroughly by senior editors.” The Washington Post has similar language about avoiding stereotypes and ethnic labels.
Now, none of them spells out the verboten words anywhere that I can see. But I think we can all well conjure them, and I’d say it isn’t much of a reach to imagine that “redskin” is one of those words. But just to make sure, I asked. I sent the style mavens at all three organizations a few simple questions. I sought to confirm that certain insensitive words were banned (I wouldn’t name them here, but words for Jews, Italians, African-Americans, etc). I then asked whether the word “redskin” was one of those words; if an editor would be likely to remove it if a writer turned in copy using “redskin” interchangeably with “Native American” and “Indian”; and finally, if the word was offensive in those contexts, why was it not so on the sports pages.