Who’s that? That’s who

Earlier this week, this tweet from The New York Times generated a discussion about style and grammar:

Here is the question from Kelly Flincham, who teaches journalism at Hofstra University: Shouldn’t it be “a teen who vapes”? Isn’t there a rule that says use “who” for people and “that” for objects?

Patrick LaForge, an editor at the Times, responded with this link from Grammar Girl’s website, suggesting that the two words are interchangeable, at least grammatically. LaForge said later that the NYT stylebook prefers “who” in those situations, although such guidelines are more loose on Twitter.

As the Grammar Girl post discusses, stylebooks differ on “who” vs. “that.” Several recommend “who” when talking about people and, on occasion, animals.

I’ve had my own experience with this question. When I was wire editor at The News & Observer in the early 2000s, I met with a group of readers concerned about coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In their view, the Raleigh newspaper’s news judgment, story placement, headlines and word choice were biased against the Palestinians and in favor of the Israeli government.

One of the readers said that we had published “Palestinians that …” constructions on occasion. She said that using “that” instead of “who” was a way to indicate that Palestinians are not people. I did my best to assure the reader that there was no such intention and that I believed that Palestinians and Israelis are humans who deserve fair treatment in the news media.

Since that conversation in the N&O newsroom years ago, I have held fast to this distinction between “who” and “that” on stylistic grounds. So if you say you want to talk to a teen that vapes, I won’t question your grammar. It’s correct. But to be on the safe side, I’d make it “who.”

Student guest post: Respect your subjects — and their pronouns

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Mary Alta Feddeman is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill with minors in women’s and gender studies and creative writing. She is from Chapel Hill, and she is interested in alternative education rooted in youth empowerment and sustainable food production, particularly in underserved communities. She likes writing essays and articles about queer politics, media representation, mental health and intersectional feminism. She also writes poetry and bikes a lot.

Recently, the mainstream entertainment media has become completely preoccupied with the gender identity of Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian and ex-spouse of Kris Kardashian, matriarch of the Kardashian clan. (Note: I will be using “they” as the pronoun referring to Jenner, but more on that later.)

As Janet Mock explained on her MSNBC show “So Popular,” the mainstream media’s coverage of Jenner’s transition—eventually confirmed by their family members—has been horrendous. Here’s a brief but representative list of Jenner-related headlines from some mainstream news outlets:

  • “Bruce Jenner To Reveal New Name As A Woman — See What He’s Been Considering” (Inquistr)
  • “Bruce Jenner confirms he’s taking hormones to look more like a woman” (The Washington Times)
  • “Transitioning from male to female: Bruce Jenner, ‘He is finally happy.'”(People)
  • “The Transition of Bruce Jenner: A Shock to Some, Visible to All” (The New York Times)

All of these are problematic, as are the stories they headline, for several reasons. First of all, the voyeuristic lens through which these publications are scrutinizing not just the life of Jenner, but the deeply personal aspects of so many lives, is insulting and needs to significantly calm down. Second, the boiling down of someone’s gender identity to hormone use, body parts and surgery is reductive, and not at all the narrative that does justice to the complex and whole lives of trans people.

But what I’m concerned with in this particular piece is the misgendering of Jenner, by way of their pronouns. These articles all use the pronoun “he,” as do the articles of every other publication that I came across in my extensive Googling. Mock explained on her show: “Pronouns may not seem like a big deal, but to trans people, they are yet another minefield to navigate in our gender binary-obsessed culture.”

Jenner’s transition has now been confirmed by their family members, but Jenner has not yet spoken to the media directly about their transition, their pronouns, or whether they wish to be called by a different name — despite what many of these publications would lead readers to believe. It’s rumored that Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer about their transition will be broadcast in the coming weeks, but until then, we do not have Jenner to rely on for answers.

So, what’s the respectful — and correct — thing to do as editors? Become more flexible with our adhesion to style guides in this particular category and use “they” pronouns until Jenner has personally made a statement on the matter. Referring to Jenner with “he” pronouns is not only blatantly rude to the subject of these articles. It is also, now, fundamentally incorrect.

Janet Mock and I agree on this subject, and it’s surprising to me that more publications did not consult with members of trans or queer communities before writing these pieces, in addition to consulting their stylebooks.

Mock summed up her response beautifully, saying, “What I don’t understand about the Jenner story is this: The media is making every effort to proclaim that Jenner is living as a woman. However, the media refuses to call Jenner ‘she’ or even ‘they.’ If we’re going to report on Jenner’s identity as a woman, we should be vigilant in ensuring we use gender-inclusive language, starting with ‘they’ until Jenner — the only source that actually matters — tells us otherwise.”

Student guest post: Language and perception in coverage of Paris march

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Jordan Bailey is a senior majoring in journalism and anthropology. She is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She enjoys studying the effects of media and is particularly interested in how minority groups are portrayed in the mainstream media. Other interests include traveling, writing, reading, cooking and eating.

As a student of both anthropology and journalism, I am interested in how language and word choice work together to affect how a story is received by its readers.

A reader’s reaction to a news event is likely to be heavily influenced by how that story is presented to them. The use of certain words and phrases typically triggers specific reactions by readers, and those reactions will vary depending on the language used. This is why it is imperative that journalists are conscious of the language choices they make.

In order to illustrate this point, I will compare aspects of two news stories — both of which cover the march in Paris that took place on Jan. 11 in response to the attack on the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. One article is from The New York Times, and the other appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

In the first paragraph of The New York Times article, the march is described as “the most striking show of solidarity in the West against the threat of Islamic extremism since the Sept. 11 attacks.” By immediately connecting the Paris attacks to Islamic extremism and the events of Sept. 11, the article is priming the reader to think negatively about the Islamic faith.

In contrast, The Wall Street Journal calls the march a “display of unity against the terror attacks that tore through (France’s) capital.” By not instantly identifying the attacks as an act of Islamic extremism, The Wall Street Journal shifts the focus from the faith of the attackers to the individual instance of tragedy that inspired the march.

The two articles also differ in how they describe the U.S. participation in the event. More than 40 presidents and prime ministers from around the globe joined the marchers in Paris.

However, neither President Barack Obama nor any other top U.S. official was present. To relay this information, The New York Times states: “Mr. Holder did not participate in the rally and march; the United States was represented by its ambassador to France, Jane D. Hartley.” The Wall Street Journal writes: “Neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden made the trip. But on the sidelines of Sunday’s rally, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve convened a meeting of senior security officials from both sides of the Atlantic, including Attorney General Eric Holder to address terror threats.”

It is interesting to note that The Wall Street Journal explicitly mentions the absence of Obama and Biden, while The New York Times does not. Highlighting their lack of attendance might cause readers to think more critically about the U.S. participation, while The New York Times article likely would not.

Language is powerful in that it can both foreground and background certain elements of a story. Influencing the way a reader is likely to perceive the event. I feel that editors should strive to be conscious of this and work to eradicate language that compromises the neutrality of the story.

That’s not my problem

Imagine that I did a small favor for you such as making change for a $20 bill. You say: “Thank you.” I respond with “no problem.”

Would you find my reply to be ungrammatical? Would you consider it rude? According to this list of grammar gripes on the NPR site, some people would.

A couple of things about that item in the list surprised me. First, that NPR would include it as matter of grammar. Second, that people continue to edit casual conversation, including personal email.

To my ear, “no problem” is fine between friends or family members to acknowledge gratitude for a minor task. It doesn’t break a grammar rule to say it or write it.

You’re welcome.

A gluttonous gourmet

homer
Homer Simpson, one of the great gourmands of popular culture.

Earlier this week, The Associated Press held a Twitter chat with guest editor J.M. Hirsch. The topic was food.

It was a fun series of tweets, and I learned, among other things, what “spatchcocking” is.

But this tweet gave me pause:

gourmand

I understand that a gourmand is a glutton. But why can’t a gourmand also appreciate fine food, albeit to excess?

Some gourmands may prefer fast food and cheap beer, but others may enjoy fine wine and steak dinners at the fanciest restaurants. Either way, the gourmand is overindulging, perhaps to the point of obesity.

Is it possible for someone to be a gourmand and a gourmet? I believe so.

An example is R.W. Apple, a famous New York Times reporter. He took great pleasure in food and drink, and he had refined tastes. The headline for this Apple column on his favorite restaurants, published shortly after his death in 2006, originally called him a “global gourmand.” It was later changed to “global gourmet.”

The change was unneeded. In its obituary, the NYT mentions Apple’s “Falstaffian appetites” and “surplus pounds.”

To my eye, Apple was a gourmand and a gourmet. Either word would work. I hope that the AP Stylebook would agree.

Degrees of definition

The embellishment of resumes is all too common. On occasion, such exaggerations and fabrications have brought down football coaches and business leaders.

The issue has popped up during the election season in Wake County, North Carolina. Paul Coble, a former mayor of Raleigh and current member of the county’s Board of Commissioners, is seeking re-election. Coble says that he holds a degree as a Registered Health Underwriter, but a Raleigh blogger says that “degree” is the wrong word for what Coble earned. In response, Coble told The News & Observer that it was a matter of semantics.

As director of a certificate program at UNC-Chapel Hill, I took a particular interest in the dispute. The certificate in technology and communication is an online, three-course program. It is aimed at mid-career professionals who want to refresh their skills and pick up new ones.

The program is valuable, and those who complete it should include their participation on their resumes. But I would discourage anyone who completed it from calling it a “degree.” It should be listed on a resume as a “certificate.”

Some course credit obtained in the certificate program can lead to a master’s degree in digital media. That would require more coursework and a final project, however.

I’m not sure that Coble’s claim matters much to voters, but it is disingenuous. As of this writing, the RHU “degree” reference remains on his page on Wikipedia and on his campaign’s website. News organizations that list Coble’s credentials should edit accordingly.