Some readers of The News & Observer are angry about a story on Sunday’s front page. Ted Vaden, the paper’s public editor, reports that the word “catfight” is the cause of numerous complaints. Interestingly, readers both liberal and conservative see the prominent use of the word as biased against their points of view. Here’s how the lead goes:
Claws were bared and tongues were wagging last week as a “catfight” took center stage in the presidential race.
The story is an attempt to set the feud between Ann Coulter and Elizabeth Edwards into a larger context. The reporter asserts that “catfight” was the word used “across the Web” to describe the exchange of words between the women. Therefore, Vaden says, the readers’ gripe is with bloggers, not the story, and it’s OK for the story to use the word to get people to think about the dispute.
Such a distinction will be lost on most readers. They see a loaded word in the story’s lead, and they interpret that as the reporter’s choice of words, not a source’s. The quotation marks around a single word don’t help. Neither does the reference to bared claws.
As for “catfight” itself, the word is a throwback, much like “coed” is. It’s best avoided in news stories, but fun to say in party conversation with people who are not irony-impaired. Indeed, “catfight” is so absurd that it became an easy laugh line years ago on “Seinfeld,” and it’s hard to imagine anyone saying it in a serious situation, which makes its use with the Coulter-Edwards story even more of a puzzle.
The story doesn’t stop there, however. It follows the lead with this:
The confrontation began Tuesday when Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic candidate John Edwards, confronted conservative provocateur Ann Coulter on the MSNBC program “Hardball.” Portraying herself as incensed over Coulter’s personal attacks against her husband, Edwards demanded that the blond bomb-thrower stop “debas[ing] the political dialogue.”
“Conservative provocateur” and “blond bomb-thrower” are unnecessary. The latter is especially suspect: Do men receive the same labels? Is Rush Limbaugh “a rotund rabble-rouser”? Is Dick Cheney the “chrome-dome VP”? The story also seems to doubt Edwards’ sincerity — why “portraying herself”? Perhaps she was incensed, not just acting like it.
Here’s the bottom line: We need to be careful with the labels and characterizations that we stick on people. The writers and editors didn’t do so with this story.