On one of the more memorable production nights at Vox during my time as managing editor, a department editor was tasked with writing a headline for a story about women who play what are considered traditional male sports. The editor brought the page to me with the headline “Women with balls” at the top. My gut reaction: Absolutely not. But, I polled the office to see if anyone else took offense. I was the only one with a problem regarding what I thought was a sexist headline. I remember one editor’s response. “I love a good balls joke,” she said.
So do I, I suppose, but only when it’s appropriate. I totally understand that the editor was trying to have fun, but paired with a story that already treated woman athletes as something new and unheard of, I thought it was inappropriate. I didn’t want to equate the idea of being tough with having testicles.
I lost the battle. Like a lot of other workplaces, you learn to get over stuff like that quickly. Sure, it probably angered some readers, but it probably made a lot of readers laugh as well. Luckily, we have a little wiggle room at Vox in terms of voice and word choice.
From the balls headline, I learned that I am probably oversensitive when it comes to matters of gender and sexism. I try to keep that sensitivity in check and to realize that the people I work with come from different backgrounds and have different experiences. But darn it, that balls headline irked me.
And then it inspired me. I decided to research how to prevent sexism from creeping into news stories. I found that besides instructing journalists to use terms such as firefighter and not fireman, there really isn’t much in the way of guidance for journalists on how to fairly cover women in the news. The 2009 Stylebook suggests “Women should receive the same treatment as men in all areas of coverage. Physical descriptions, sexist references, demeaning stereotypes and condescending phrases should not be used.” But what are these demeaning stereotypes?
“Working with Words,” co-written by the Missouri School of Journalism’s Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Brian Brooks, James L. Pilson and Jean Gaddy Wilson, offers a little more instruction. It lists these five categories of which journalists should be aware: the mother or nurturer, the stepmother or bitch, the pet or cheerleader, the tempter or seducer and the victim.
Now that I had these five categories, I was sure I would find loads of articles where the Missourian’s rookie reporters had slipped up and portrayed women according to these tired stereotypes. I decided to look at articles, photo galleries and slide shows that were published between late May and early August, the months I was copy editing for the newspaper, to see if any fit into these categories. What I found surprised me.
In the articles I looked at, I found quite a number of instances where a story could have fit into one of these models but, because the writer inserted very little description and stuck to the basic facts, it somehow avoided being sexist.
Krista Schmidt’s “Woman plans to petition Health Department for custody of cats kept in motel” could have easily fit into the category mother/nurturer with a twist. In June, a woman in Columbia, Susan Kohler, was discovered to be keeping 32 cats — 28 alive and four dead — in a Motel 6. The cats were removed and placed in the Central Missouri Humane Society’s care, and Kohler was charged with violating a city ordinance that only allows residents to own, at most, four dogs or cats.
Had the reporter painted Kohler to be an out-of-control nurturer, the story could have taken a sexist turn. Because the reporter just stuck to the facts of the case, and included quotes from Kohler’s attorney instead of over dramatizing in her own words what he put simply, the story didn’t take such a turn.
Elisa Essner did the same in “Ex-boyfriend testifies in Fields' murder trial.” The Tausha Fields trial involved Fields and multiple love interests, and could easily fall into the crime of passion trap. Fields, who was found guilty of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the death of Mitchell Kemp, one of her former husbands, persuaded her then-boyfriend to kill Kemp. Thus, it would have been easy to portray her as a tempter or seducer.
Instead, when the reporter had to recount the details of the murder, she stuck to a chronological structure and did not try to get inside the head or at the emotions of Fields. A very simple lead contributed to the fairness of the article.
In my search, I only found one slide show that I thought could fit into the victim category, the category of which I thought I would find the most examples. “Pink Promise Tea brings breast cancer survivors together,” by Emily Smoucha and Matthew Schur, focuses on women who have survived breast cancer and it hones in on one woman whose first point is the fact that her initial reaction to learning she has breast cancer was worrying about losing her hair, which fits the stereotypical model of a woman faced with chemotherapy. This slide show paints women as shallow victims. It goes on to talk about the woman’s husband’s reaction to the cancer, skipping any emotion she had, save her hair loss. It eventually wraps up on a high note when she talks about living in remission, but more importance should have been placed on this aspect rather than the hair loss and husband’s reaction to avoid the stereotype.
What did I learn from my hunt for sexist Missourian articles this summer? For one, we’re doing better than I thought we were. Sticking to the facts is key for reporters. When descriptions get out of hand, sexism can often pop up. My advice for both the Missourian reporters who are barely a month into their class and practicing journalists everywhere: When in doubt, keep it simple, don’t categorize and only make balls jokes when appropriate.
Amanda Woytus is the deputy editor and calendar editor for Vox Magazine.