Recalculating your perspective on health, gender and the use of pronouns Date: 11/22/16
In my freelance work, fact checking often rests with me as the reporter. I thought I had done a thorough job on my latest assignment, a Slate article about LGBTQ romance novels. My article instead prompted a flurry of criticism over citing a self-professed authority on romances pairing male protagonists.
It quickly thrust me into an issue facing many health reporters — reassessing how we write about health, gender and pronouns. The source turned out to be a woman writing under a pseudonym. I should have vetted this person’s credentials with some of my trusted sources. After updating the story, I decided to turn what was the worst episode of my professional career into a guide for fellow journalists.
I reasoned that gaining a better understanding of how to report on gender issues not only would be instructive for me but the profession as a whole. Gender factors into nearly every story that journalists pursue. How often do we use pronouns based on our assessment of a source’s or subject’s appearance? How should we proceed without profiling individuals who already are subject to disproportionate violence?
I decided to pitch on a post-mortem of my experience to the Columbia Journalism Review. As I wrote in CJR, using the right pronoun can be a matter of life and death, particularly for transgender people who choose not to be open about their trans identity or history. (Grantland’s “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” represents the classic case of “what not to do, and how not to treat a fellow human being.”) For me, the fundamental question rested with how journalists should approach coverage of gender — and sexuality — with equal parts professional integrity and humanity.
I targeted CJR because the publication helps set standards for our profession. The guide I wrote, at nearly 3,500 words, is by no means a definitive account, and standards will continue to evolve. I worked with Cory Schouten, a great editor who helped me synthesize a nut graf that fully distilled the breadth of my findings. There were so many considerations: from revising language standards and developing news ethics, to ultimately reporting a source’s truth.
Health reporters might get particular use out of the section on interviewing dos and don’ts. Transgender individuals and other marginalized people do not have a responsibility to educate journalists about the most intimate details of their lived experiences. Questions about surgical status usually are unnecessary and irrelevant to most stories. If that topic is somehow relevant to a story — for example, a piece about the U.S. military determining how to cover health care costs for openly transgender service members — journalists should carefully consider their approach and words. For example, there’s been a shift away from “sexual reassignment surgery” to variants of “gender confirmation” and “gender affirmation” procedures that are not necessarily surgical. A term like “transition-related medical care” could cover a broad range of services. Journalists need to examine their motivations for wanting to pursue transgender stories and not simply obsess over surgical status.
Whenever I cover gender and sexuality, my motivation is to amplify LGBTQ voices without talking over them or appropriating their points of view. I am telling their stories. As a straight, cisgender woman, I was concerned that I might have missed nuances I would only know from lived experiences that I lack. I was fortunate to speak with journalists Sunnivie Brydum and Meredith Talusan, with whom I could vet portions of the story from both their professional and personal perspectives on gender and sexuality issues. A challenge I faced in fact-checking the CJR piece speaks to a continued lack of diversity in newsrooms. We need more reporters who can cover gender, sexuality, race and other identities – and how those identities can intersect – through the lens of their lived experiences.
Christine Grimaldi (@chgrimaldi) is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter and writer. She covers Congress for Rewire, focusing on reproductive health and justice issues. Her work has appeared in Slate, The Rumpus, and The Morning News and other publications. Her website is christinegrimaldi.com.