Reporting with a new language

Reporters are accustomed to asking those they interview to spell their name, give their age and occupation, maybe where they live if that’s pertinent to the story. Making sure we describe people fairly and accurately is a basic staple of good journalism.

San Francisco Examiner reporters are now adding another question to the basic details we ask of people we talk with: their preferred pronoun. Whether someone wishes to be known as “he,” “she” or “they,” it will be up to us to ask them, not for the reporter to assume.

This is a small change in our daily routine as reporters, but the significance is immense. It will allow our coverage to better reflect the breadth of gender expression and gender identity and present that diversity with a deserved dignity.

For many of the people we interview and report on, trusting a news organization to accurately represent their thoughts, words and identity is no small matter. We take that responsibility seriously.

At the Examiner, we strive to represent everyone as accurately as we can, and that includes getting preferred pronouns right. For the most part, this can be accomplished by simply asking.

When referring to a specific individual for whom we haven’t or cannot ask which pronoun they prefer, we will default to their presented gender. If the person presents as a man, we will use “he”; for those presenting as a woman, we will use “she.” We won’t get it right every time, but we will correct mistakes when we learn about them. When someone’s presented gender is ambiguous and unspecified, we will try to avoid ascribing a gender to them. The goal is to provide accurate reporting and not assume facts we don’t know.

In cases where we refer to a nonspecific individual, the Examiner will now use the singular “they.”

By adopting this as our standard practice, and announcing the change with this editorial, we aim to make our coverage more inclusive, more responsive to the communities we serve and to the human condition as a whole.

It is past time for news organizations to adopt such a policy. If we strive to tell the story of San Francisco and the stories of the people who live here, the language we use to do so must be up to the task.

The Washington Post welcomed the singular “they” into its stylebook last December. It was also the American Dialect Society’s word of the year last year. Now, we agree to adopt it as well.

But we want to go further and recognize that for some — especially those who might not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth — being known by their gender-affirmed pronoun is meaningful. We have no desire to take that away from them.

We do not undertake this change lightly. This policy is the result of discussions over many months with journalists, linguists, gender studies scholars and transgender individuals both here in the Bay Area and in other cities nationwide.

We considered eliminating gendered pronouns from our stories all together, opting instead for “they” in all cases, or choosing one of the newer constructed non-gendered pronouns, such as “Ze,” “Thon” or “Xe.” The confusion and artifice this would create convinced us that this was not the right move for the Examiner. In addition, we do not want to flatten human experience by stripping away gender from our descriptive arsenal; we merely wish to hone our sights for a truer picture of the world, and the worlds, we cover.

Although we are announcing this policy today, we have operated under these editorial guidelines for a while.

Here is a recent example of how this was put into practice in our pages:

Jaya Padmanabhan, who writes our In Brown Type column about immigration issues, wrote last month about an asylum case involving J. Jha, an actor living in San Francisco who immigrated from India and is gender-nonconforming. As for pronouns, Jha requested we use “they.”

In the Aug. 24 column “Written in parenthesis” about Jha’s asylum case, Padmanabhan wrote: “As Jha began to experiment with dressing in a gender-nonconforming fashion, they grasped the very real possibility of persecution if they returned to India as a transgender queer person.”

Who is “they”? It’s Jha — singular.

Confusing? Yeah, maybe at first, but it doesn’t take long for the logic of the language to work on the reader. Given time, the strangeness of the convention will fade.

Our intention is to celebrate, dignify and respect the affirmations people make about their identities. We want to honor the identities of those we write about, not enforce gender binary language or diminish anyone’s right to their own.

If the goal of reporting is to describe truth the best we can at any given time — a foundational tenet of the craft — then this is the right time and right place to reset our assumptions about how we ascribe gender. Editors like to tell reporters they should assume nothing when covering a story — a newspaper trades in facts and sentiments, nothing more. So relying on “he” and “she” to reference individuals without asking which one is accurate is lazy at best and wrong and damaging at worst. Just as we would be loath to ascribe nationality, religion, social and economic status or race to a passerby on the street, so it is with gender as well.

This means we won’t bother with any parentheticals in our stories stipulating that “this person does not identify as either male or female” or some such explanation as to how we are using pronouns. It will just be left as is, however the person requests they be identified, for readers to process and understand.

We believe a newspaper must simultaneously represent what our society is and what it should be. The offense some might take — to grammar, tradition or propriety — is secondary to the opportunity we have to affirm the right of individuals to appear as themselves in our pages. It is far more important for this paper to write truthfully about people in our communities than to uphold old conventions that no longer suit who we are or who we wish to be.

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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