August 22, 2014

Writing: Accuracy

As journalists and writers, it is our responsibility to use language with sense and sensitivity.

Unintentionally sexist language:

Sexist language excludes or demeans one gender or another on the basis of sex. Because of the number of words that we use that are implicitly meant to include everyone, but explicitly exclude women, sexist language has come to be understood as language that excludes women.

  • Peace on Earth; good will to men.
  • All men are created equal.

The generic “He”

Just as “man” cannot refer to men-only and women-and-men-both, “he” cannot refer to a male person at certain times and both genders other times.

He = maleness whether you intend it or not.

A doctor should be kind to  his patients.
  • In this example, we are talking about generic doctors; therefore we need an equally unrestricted gender reference.
  • A doctor should be kind to his or her patients. (awkward)
  • Doctors should be kind to their patients. (better)
  • A doctor should be kind to patients. (maybe best)

A child will be brave if he is encouraged to explore his world.

  • A child will be brave if he or she is encouraged to explore his or her world. (accurate but awkward)
  • Children will be brave if they are encouraged to explore their world. (better)
  • A child will be brave if encouraged to explore the world.(maybe better)

 

INSTEAD OF USE
Man, men person, people
mankind people
founding fathers founders, forebears
manpower work force
to man (verb) to staff, operate

 

Unintentionally racist language:

Race-centric language excludes or demeans a person or group of people on the basis of race. Because of the pervasiveness of racism in the United States (and worldwide) it is not surprising when a writer’s judgment is affected by long-standing and insidious stereotypes. Our job as writers is not to be defensive and hostile to suggestions of non-inclusive language but rather to identify those stereotypes and remove them from our language.

PROBLEMS TO IDENTIFY AND ELIMINATE:

1. Identifying people unnecessarily by race.

A person’s race is usually not a vital part of a story. If race is not the point of the story such as…

“Toni Morrison was the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize.”

…then leave it out. Do not identify a person by his or her race if you would not do the same for a person of any race in the same situation.

  • “Barack Obama, the popular black senator, announced his intention to run for president.”

Is as equally ridiculous as:

  • “Hillary Clinton, the popular white senator, announced her intention to run for president.”

2. Reinforcing Stereotypes.

This problem is subtle and requires that a writer closely consider why he or she is including particular descriptions. Treating someone of a particular race as an exception is just as demeaning as an overt stereotype.

  • “hard working, even-tempered Mexican-American”
  • “assertive and outspoken Asian-American”
  • “articulate and well-spoken African-American”

3. Euro-centrism

Contrary to popular myth, white, European culture is not superior to all other cultures, nor is it the standard by which all other cultures should be judged. So be watchful for phrases like “culturally deprived” and “non-white,” which imply just that.

4. Group names

Language and group names change all of the time. In the past, names for members of various racial and ethnic groups were given to them by people outside the group. These terms, though widely used, were often seen as demeaning by the group itself.

For example: In the early 20th century, “colored” was an “accepted” group name for black Americans. In an effort to eliminate the demeaning word from “popular” usage, black Americans pressed hard to be called, “Negro.” In the sixties “black” and “afro-American” were the terms of choice. Today many people prefer “African-American.”

The point is that as journalist, we must be aware of what various racial groups call themselves and want to be called publicly and use those terms accordingly.

Unintentionally ageist language:

Ageist language demeans a person based on a his or her age. Stereotypes casting old people as feeble and cranky and teen-agers as irresponsible and inarticulate are not only insulting, they are often inaccurate.

Reinforcing stereotypes: Just as writers can reinforce racial stereotypes by pointing out the “exceptions” so can they reinforce age stereotypes.

  • Still quick-witted, Sally celebrated her 80th birthday.
  • A well-mannered and articulate sophomore, Steve Smith was a favorite among his teachers.

The solution: Write about people as individuals, not as representatives of, or exceptions to, their age group.

Writing about disability

Be on the lookout for language that demeans a person based on a disability.

When writing about people with physical or mental limitations, ask them how they want to be referred to. And once again, if it doesn’t have anything to do with the story, leave it out.

  • Susan Jones, who has epilepsy, opened a clothing store.
  • Bill Smith, who has no identifiable physical impairments, opened a gourmet restaurant

People are not their handicaps. People have handicaps.

  • Never write: Bill Smith, an asthmatic, climbed Mount Everest.
  • Instead write: Bill Smith, who has asthma, climbed Mount Everest.

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