Guest post: Journalists should embrace gender-neutral language

by andybechtel

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Leah Josephson is a junior journalism and French major, and women’s studies minor. She serves as managing editor for The Siren magazine, UNC-Chapel Hill’s student-run feminist publication.

A coalition of 11 UNC-Chapel Hill student groups and university departments hosted “Inclusive Reporting: Bringing the DTH into the 21st Century” on Thursday, March 18. The event was a teach-in examining the serious societal consequences of gendered language as well as related concerns for journalists in particular. It was meant to pressure The Daily Tar Heel, UNC-Chapel Hill’s independent student newspaper, to adopt the University’s gender-neutral language policy.

Participating groups collected 434 signatures from supportive students, faculty and administrators in the week preceding the teach-in. More than 100 people attended the event in Bingham 103, which was followed by a letter-writing campaign. Participants then delivered handwritten letters and the petition to Editor-in-chief Andrew Dunn at The Daily Tar Heel offices.

Dunn did not attend the teach-in, which featured a lively discussion about gendered language and its significance. He refused to adopt the university’s gender-neutral policy, opting to continue to use gendered terms such as “freshman,” “chairman,” and “chairwoman.”

However, the adoption of inclusive terms has many benefits for journalists. These were described by teach-in speaker Carolyn Edy, Roy H. Park fellow and Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Because a common goal for journalists is to be concise, going beyond precise language to add unnecessary details to a story (i.e. the gender of the subject) is irrelevant and unimportant. Providing the gender of the chair of a committee does not add important information to the story.

As queer movements gain momentum in this country, activists and people with more ambiguous gender identities will be featured more prominently in the news media. Journalists working under gendered style guides will be forced to determine whether the subjects of their articles are “chairmen” or “chairwomen,” often with unclear answers.

At UNC-CH, student journalists would benefit from a style guide that is cohesive with the university’s policy. The university has deliberately chosen to use neutral language, and The Daily Tar Heel is inaccurately altering its official policy and documents, along with those of student organizations that choose to have gender-neutral officer titles. The Daily Tar Heel never even included coverage of the university’s significant policy change in the newspaper.

While gender neutrality seems like an unimportant cause, it’s important to consider it in the context of a societal system that has allowed pornographic images to become mainstream, commodifies women’s bodies in advertisements, normalizes and accepts homophobia (“That’s so gay!”) and is constantly plagued with men’s violence against women. All of these sexist attitudes and behaviors combine to create the roots of an unsafe, oppressive environment for women and LGBT-identified individuals.

The Daily Tar Heel should be mindful of the needs of its progressive campus community. It can do its part to help eliminate rape culture by using inclusive language. Each simple change in favor of equality helps to move us closer to an egalitarian society.

For a fantastic, satirical comparison of racist and gendered language, see “A Person Paper on Purity of Language” by Douglas Hofstadter.

UPDATE: Daily Tar Heel editor Andrew Dunn responds.

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