“Beyond Political Correctness”: The Message of Exclusion from Gendered Language in Journalism

Like the rest of us who went to elementary school in the United States, I grew up in classes divided into “girls and boys”. Didn’t see any gender neutral signs attached to restroom doors. They called me a “little girl” and juxtaposed the “little boys” in my class. Eventually we were declared young women and men. Our world makes gendered language easily accessible and understandable, the unavoidable choice in writing and conversation.

Considering the importance of language as it relates to journalism seems redundant. Yet by using gendered language in reporting, we strive to maintain the status quo, the binary rooted in us for centuries by colonization and capitalist power dynamics rooted in and grounded in the existence of a duality, a ” U.S. against them “. In fact, many other cultures, primarily those that are indigenous or have been colonized in some way, historically or currently, view gender as a spectrum.

Activist and educator Sally Goldner once said, “It’s really important, in a world that is often very either/or, to remember that there can be both, neither. other and all – that is, other than the ‘binary’ of man”. or female.

We are in an age of mass information and access, with an increasingly overtly diverse population made up of a range of sexual and gender identities, from cisgender to transgender, straight to queer, and everywhere in between. This readership relies on the media for information. Because good reporting can provide comprehensive and lasting knowledge about a subject, journalists have the power not only to report facts, but also to alter social, political and economic discourse, making the language they use fraught with senses.

As a freelance journalist and queer writer who uses the pronouns they/them and her/his, I have been at both ends of the reporting chain. My job and my personality not only require me to tell stories, but also to read them. My identity serves to inform how I engage in journalism, who I interview about.

But despite the truth of my identity, I’m still seen as a woman overall by society. Conversely, it helps me understand the impacts of reporting that is exclusive due to its use of gendered language. Through this, I took note of the widespread lack of gender-inconsistent language in the media, and how this can create a ripple effect on and off the page.

How can gendered language cause material harm?

In reporting, failing to reflect the more than one million transgender and non-binary individuals in the United States dismisses much of the American population, as well as the facts of events and stories. In a field rooted in the search for truth about the issue, relying on gendered language ignores the fundamental tenet of journalist ethics.

“A lot of companies promise inclusiveness, but the language used on their website is still incredibly binary,” said Kale O’Hara, a doula in non-binary training. “It immediately turns non-binaries and trans away. You cannot commit to inclusiveness in theory and not in practice.

This often happens in the media.

For example, the title of this New York Times article, “Cannabis use during pregnancy may lead to a more anxious and aggressive child,” seems to indicate a discussion of how cannabis use by pregnant women might have impact on their child’s development.

However, the first opening words are immediately off-putting to a non-cis readership: “Children of women who use marijuana…” Not all pregnant people identify as or are female, which renders this article pointless. for non-cisgender people who are or will be parents. Of course, the diction is exclusive, but its impact can be more serious.

Since the topic covers cannabis use and pregnancy, a non-binary or trans pregnant person might be left with no answers as to how cannabis use might affect their unborn child and how cannabis use might affect them. .

“When I read an article with gendered language, especially if it’s medical or physical, it leaves me wondering how [the topic] could impact my body,” O’Hara said.

The main study referenced in the New York Times article deals with “maternal” cannabis use. “Maternal” is a binary description of someone with a uterus or someone capable of giving birth vaginally.

It ignores something that trans and non-binary people have been talking about for years: biology does not predetermine a person’s identity.

Although the study did not include a group of subjects on hormones to infer whether the impact of cannabis on these parents is similar or different, not all non-binary and trans people are on hormones. In other words, to make the study more inclusive, the researchers could have conducted more diverse tests.

“[One of the driving forces in my using gendered language] was the research itself,” said Melinda Wenner Moyer, the reporter who wrote the Times article. “But I suspect the biggest driver was habit. I actively try to work on noticing gendered language when I see it and correcting myself when I use it.

While Moyer might have asked the two doctors originally why their study group wasn’t more diverse or what they suspect the effects might be for those taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT), the general use of non-gender-specific language can help encourage those studies. Incorporating inclusive language while discussing studies that use the opposite could serve as a call to action for the medical world as a whole to do the same, both by changing their diction and including pools more diverse tests.

Either way, the language could have been changed throughout the article, as the study can still be referred to in gender-neutral terms without compromising the science. Moyer then wrote an article for Nature, which also discussed a study that may have fallen into the same trap. However, with the help of her editors, she wrote a more inclusive article.

“I remember having that ‘aha’ moment when I saw their changes,” she said. “And I realized, ‘Wow. I haven’t given enough thought to the implications of my word choices, and I really need to do a better, more careful job.

The urgency to move away from gendered language in journalism

Whether by alliance or by hiring more LGBTQ+ reporters and editors, these discrepancies can be reported and changed. Moreover, ownership and an active desire to change practices are valuable, both for the readership and for other journalists.

Diversifying who a journalist speaks to on a story can also help alleviate issues of inclusivity.

“If you’re looking for experts to weigh in on an issue like reproductive health, you’ll have to be judicious about who you talk to because the majority of people will be speaking in gendered terms. It’s frustrating, but it’s not unachievable,” said Ziya JonesHealth and Wellness Editor at Xtra Magazine.

But making changes in language requires people to understand that it’s not just journalists who use gendered language by default and need to take responsibility for it, O’Hara said.

“Unless they’re trans or non-binary, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals rarely know how to talk to me, whether it’s about testosterone or what to expect after surgery” , they said.

Using gender-neutral language can encourage deeper medical treatment while influencing policy and social rhetoric.

“Using gender-neutral pronouns is definitely a big step forward in challenging our internalized gender biases and being more inclusive of non-binary individuals,” said Jacqui Carini, Non-Binary Film and TV Producer .

For example, the use of gender-neutral language in an article about pregnancy challenges the idea that only women can get pregnant, increasing positive and healthy medical interactions, while breaking that idea down into social interactions and health policy.

According to Jones, moving away from gendered language is “beyond political correctness.” Addressing and properly acknowledging trans and non-binary people can be key to ensuring they receive the care they need.

“Speaking to and incorporating more diverse experts and sources can resolve many of the disparities that exist in people’s discussion, but more than that, it can help achieve a higher standard of health care for many people,” said Jones.

Gender-neutral language can also provide exposure to other lived experiences as well as the diversity and nuance of other people’s existence while educating beyond the medical and political realms.

O’Hara said they can seek out representative publications and news stories that best represent them, but for the rest of the cis population who receive their information from mainstream publications, representation and inclusiveness is insufficient because it is unlikely to be regularly exposed to trans and non-binary identities and experiences.

And within this framework, education, exposure and safety are insufficient. Hate crimes are rampant in times of misinformation and discrimination. We’ve seen the human rights campaign track 2020 as the deadliest year for transgender and gender non-conforming people yet. 2021 exceeded this data. The more widespread use of gender-neutral language is helping to make it the norm both on and off the page.

The tacit but present inclusion of gender-neutral language in news stories increases LGBTQ+ visibility while correcting misconceptions. In these same schools that divided us girls and boys, I remember the importance given to the notion of tolerance. While I find tolerance a frivolous goal in the face of discrimination, hate crimes and oppression, any well-meaning effort towards it, even rooted in “political correctness”, is fallible and hypocritical if not is not rooted in the action of journalism and beyond. .

While I’m not blaming a journalist for using gendered language in a story, that doesn’t negate a journalist’s responsibility to stop using gendered language. The power of our roles comes with a certain urgency. Journalists explore and discuss the truth; in this way, our reports reflect and influence the current state of affairs.

“The more we continue to use gendered language in our writing, the more we perpetuate the status quo and alienate trans or non-binary people,” Moyer said. “We mislead the public, fuel stereotypes and exclude others.”

Liana De Masi is a freelance fiction writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, NY, with bylines in The Boston Globe, iD Magazine, Poynter, Atmos, and others. This piece originally aired on The Objective. Subscribe to his newsletters here.

Gender roles illustration by Feewiki is used under a Creative Commons license.

Comments are closed.