Our editors & readers talk
I don’t mean those brave people who douse blazes and rescue us from distress. I mean the term ‘firemen’. Many readers object to gender specific terms for occupations. Erika thoughtfully drew to our attention an instance where for the sake of brevity in a headline we used ‘firemen’ when we should have used ‘firefighters.’ Although other news agencies suggest that ‘firemen’ is acceptable when space is at premium, as in a newspaper headline, the Reuters style guide says we should use firefighters at all times.
Are we being over scrupulous and politically correct? I don’t think so. While we do not euphemise we also avoid giving unnecessary offence. At Reuters we use standard language, which of course evolves over time. So where we would once have written ‘workmen’ we now write ‘workers’ and where in the past postmen delivered mail we now reflect the opening of many professions to women by writing ‘postal workers’. Some prefer ‘chair’ to describe the person in charge of a company’s board; we prefer ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman’.
Language is not fixed in stone, which is why we welcome debate with our audience. Many of you write to email@example.com when you spot errors or object to our handling of a story. We post the responses on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly blog. You can also leave comment on this blog. A good recent example of where reader comment prompted me to question our handling of a story was the use of the tag ‘elephant man’ to describe a Chinese man having a huge, life-threatening tumour removed from his face. The ‘elephant man’ reference is to the David Lynch film of the life of John Merrick. But at no point in our story did we refer to Merrick and his horrible facial disfigurement. Arguably our reference became an insensitive cultural allusion. Arguably it was also wrong. Huang Chuncai was suffering from neurofibromatosis. Recent research suggests Merrick was afflicted by Proteus syndrome, a rare disorder identified less than 30 years ago.
Sean Maguire is Editor, Political and General News
Photo: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger thanks U.S. Forest Service Firefighter Kristin Brownlee for her efforts on the Angora Fire at South Lake Tahoe High School in California June 27, 2007. REUTERS/Max Whittaker
When I blogged about the Reuters policy on using words like terrorism or terrorist there was some support and some criticism, as you would expect. Paul Butler urged us not to beat about the bush, but to be firm on our convictions. Onno Oerlemans said that avoiding the use of emotive terms was a wise policy. Dastarblazer suggested there were other vague and emotive terms used by journalists, such as ‘democracy‘ and asked if Reuters had guidelines on their use.
Terrorism is a phenomenon that most people abhor. Nevertheless it exists and the job of Reuters journalists is to report when it occurs, what its consequences are and what might be its causes. In doing so we have no convictions other than to report the news accurately and without bias. Just as we think long and hard about how we describe acts of violence and their perpetrators we take care on the language we use about political activity. There are different forms of democracy and different understandings of what the term entails. There are states that say they are democracies but whose elections are routinely condemned by outsiders as unfair. Is democracy just a system of universal suffrage or do you need to have signed up to standards on human rights to qualify? Any label applied unthinkingly is a barrier to good journalism. Sometimes terms like ‘populist’ or ‘reformist’ are applied to governments without careful consideration, leading to unconscious bias for or against them. Reuters does not judge if a system of government is good or bad, it is our job to describe its characteristics accurately. The Reuters Style guide says neutrality is the hallmark of our news brand. It is up to readers to decide if they prefer Cuba’s politics to Canada’s, Sweden’s social model or that of the United States and if China’s economics are more to their taste than Chile’s.
We are often asked what our policy is on using these terms. One recent example came in a comment on the Editor-in-Chief’s blog. How we describe acts of violence and those who perpetrate them is deeply sensitive. Readers feel very strongly but very differently about how certain groups or individuals should be identified. It is a subject on which global media organisations like our own tread carefully.
The best explanation of our policy is the guidance we give to our journalists in the Reuters handbook. All Reuters reporters, whatever their nationality, personal beliefs or politics, abide by these guidelines.