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An infusion of inclusion into the news

This Public Editor Newsletter published Feb. 17, 2022

News consumers often note NPR's track record on inclusion, and their perceptions aren't all the same. In one comment this week, a listener was disappointed that NPR overlooked a historic Academy Award nomination for a deaf actor. In another critique, a listener dismissed NPR's use of the gender-inclusive term "pregnant people" as an unnecessary verbal backbend.

The opposite of inclusion is erasure. If daily journalism is the first draft of history and also the aggregate of the most important things happening in the world right now, a failure to be inclusive causes harm to people and groups who are cut out of the coverage. When we can't see a person, it's easier to ignore their suffering and dismiss their accomplishments.

The stories we tell and the language we use both reflect the world that we know and open the door to a wider view. There was a time when gender-neutral terms weren't as ubiquitous as they are now. But today, we probably wouldn't think twice of saying "firefighters" instead of "firemen," or "spokespeople" instead of "spokesmen."

It's not surprising when a listener notices a new phrasing like "pregnant people" and questions if it's necessary. And it's also understandable when a listener expresses disappointment over a missed opportunity to be inclusive.

Given public media's mission to serve the American public, when there is a choice between preserving the status quo or expanding the circle of who is seen and heard, NPR should do the latter.

That's easier said than done. As we researched our responses to these letters, we found that good intentions can get cut from a story. Inclusive language can be elusive. Read on to see what we learned.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

An omission in awards diversity discussion

Marie Coppola tweeted on Feb. 8: I was disappointed that your brief report on diversity in the Academy Award nominations omitted Troy Kotsur, who I believe is the first Deaf actor to be nominated in the Best Supporting Actor (male) category. And only the second Deaf actor ever nominated. [Coppola continued via email:] I also happily found this (which I hadn't heard on air): So I'm glad to see Troy's work highlighted, I just wish that deafness/disability had been included as part of the piece on diversity as well. I think this is also especially important because of the film industry's insistence on casting non-disabled actors to play disabled characters.

Hours after the nominations for the 94th annual Academy Awards were announced, All Things Considered aired a segment intended to give listeners an overview of a major Hollywood moment. Host Ari Shapiro led with the movies that nabbed the most nods and brought in Senior Arts Critic Bob Mondello and Pop Culture Happy Hour host Aisha Harris for their observations.

When Shapiro brought up diversity, the conversation focused mostly on race and international films. As you noted, there was no mention of Troy Kotsur, who starred in CODA — a film about a deaf family in Gloucester, Mass., whose only hearing member falls in love with music. Kotsur is the first deaf man nominated for an acting Oscar, and the second deaf actor to be nominated after his co-star Marlee Matlin. By failing to mention this, NPR missed an opportunity to highlight a wider range of diversity.

"I entirely agree with the listener, but don't want to leave the impression that it didn't occur to us," Mondello told me in an email about bringing up Kotsur. "In that pre-recorded All Things Considered conversation, when the topic of diversity was raised, I commented at some length about the history-making nature of Kotsur's nomination, and of CODA itself. But our chat lasted more than eight mins and was only slotted in the show for 5:30 mins, so the producers had to cut extensively. Evidently that section could be cut out cleanly."

Broadcast shows can be painful in that way.

It's worth noting that NPR has previously covered the actor's achievements with this film. On the day the Oscar nods were announced, NPR.org ran this digital standalone story you mentioned on Kotsur's historic nomination. Last August, All Things Considered produced an in-depth profile of Kotsur. For that story, Arts Desk correspondent Mandalit del Barco interviewed Kotsur through an interpreter. Mondello also appeared on ATC a few days later with a warm review of the film, which won a Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival. And in a breakdown of the nominations, the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast noted that Kotsur is the first deaf male acting nominee.

"For what it's worth, both I and the network are well aware of the importance, not just of this nomination but of this film, to the deaf community, and to the way we cover diversity in general," Mondello said. "That's why, in my original review, I made a point of talking about the filmmaker's choice to film with actors who are deaf (something the original French film on which CODA is based did not do)."

Mondello told me it's also why he did a news spot highlighting the actor's nomination. That spot, he said, was broadcast three times in NPR newscasts last Tuesday and Wednesday. Mondello said there's more coverage in the works on Kotsur's nomination. He asked that you stay tuned. — Amaris Castillo

The meanings of 'pregnant people' and 'pregnant women'

Lloyd Larsen wrote on Feb. 6: When was the decision made to say pregnant people instead of pregnant women? I wonder if some women find it offensive, since only women can get pregnant. I know you are trying to be inclusive and not offend nonbinary [people] or trans men who still have their female reproductive organs, but given the small number of people who fall into these categories, I think it's silly to say pregnant people and I don't like it. ...

Clearly you see the intention. Not everyone who is pregnant identifies as a woman. Some people who are pregnant may identify as trans men or nonbinary. Because of this, several medical organizations — like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — began using the term "pregnant people" in recent years. The term is also being adapted in legal language. For NPR, the term "pregnant people" is used to be more accurate and inclusive.

Inclusive language is not about critical mass. It's about possibility. Journalists swapped in firefighter for fireman and police officer for policeman long before those professions began admitting women in real numbers.

The term "pregnant people" is only used in news stories when discussing an abstract or theoretical group of people. When journalists know that every person they are referring to identifies as a woman, then "pregnant women" works just fine.

Sabia Wade, CEO of Birthing Advocacy Doula Trainings, said "inclusive language is not exclusive" and gender-neutral language like "pregnant people" can be a starting point to describe a group collectively but individuals should still be able to share the term they prefer to describe them like "mom," "pregnant woman" or "expecting parent."

Ellyn Wyman-Grothem, a birth doula and childbirth educator specializing in queer birth experiences and a member of the Queer Birth Project said that language should change over time as we realize it's leaving people out. "As we are evolving as people, we realize that hey, that [language] actually leaves out a whole bunch of people. And so it's the same with talking about 'pregnant people' as opposed to 'pregnant women.' There are a lot more people in the world that get pregnant than just [cisgender] women. So it's a more accurate term."

Sam Schmitt, a client of Wyman-Grothem's, is a transgender parent who gave birth as a trans masculine person and said the experience of being misgendered is very harmful, and trans parents are often asked invasive questions about how the baby was made or who the parent is that are not typically asked of cisgender parents.

"We're not trying to pit 'pregnant people' versus 'pregnant women,' " Schmitt said. "Queer people and trans people are included in that 'pregnant people' population, and it includes cisgender women. We're just asking that we don't have violence levied against our bodies and that we make space for people who are outside of normative bounds of gender."

However, there is disagreement on when to use "pregnant people." Some argue for preserving "pregnant women" to describe a collective group of those who are pregnant because women are marginalized and can face discrimination with their reproductive health that cisgender men don't. For them, "pregnant people" feels too broad to reflect that predominantly-female experience.

Author Helen Lewis wrote in The Atlantic last year, "some, including me, are concerned that ['pregnant people'] obscures the social dynamics at work in laws surrounding contraception, abortion, and maternal health." Lewis argues we should keep gendered language to reflect heavily gendered experiences.

We agree that it's important for people to share their gendered experiences. We also believe that gender-inclusive language is necessary, and that it can and should coexist with gender-specific language.

NPR Managing Editor Terry Samuel pointed us to newsroomwide guidance sent out last year when asked about how NPR decides to use the terms "pregnant people" and "pregnant women."

In May 2021, NPR said it uses "pregnant people" in its stories because it includes all who may be pregnant and some of the top medical organizations use the term. But it also said that "pregnant women" could be used when it was accurate. "It is not necessary to discard the term 'pregnant women' — use the words that make sense in context and words that help the audience understand, instead of adding confusion," the guidance read.

For example, when reporting on CDC guidance for vaccines as it relates to pregnancy, NPR used "pregnant people" because it's the term the public health officials use and it's also more accurate — they want anyone who is pregnant to know it's safe to get a vaccine, not just those who identify as women. But NPR also used "pregnant women" three times in the piece — in part because they were citing statistics that were only based on women.

NPR's abortion coverage guidance in December 2021 said that language inclusive to trans and nonbinary folks could exist alongside gendered language in pregnancy- and reproductive-related coverage: "As always, the specific context and the people featured in a particular story, and how they speak and self-identify, can help guide language choices."

In fact, NPR specifically instructed reporters that both gender-inclusive (pregnant people) and gender-specific (pregnant women) language was acceptable.

"Our coverage should acknowledge the diversity of identities affected by particular policies, and strive to use gender-inclusive and gender-specific terms as appropriate," it read. This practice of using both gender-inclusive and gendered language can be found in a December 2021 story that used "people seeking abortions" and "women coming from out of state" to report on how California is positioning itself at the forefront of abortion rights. Our research found inclusive and women-centered language used together in several stories over the past couple of years.

NPR's Managing Editor for Standards and Practices Tony Cavin cited Samuel's guidance and supported the nuanced use of the terms.

"We use both [terms], we never use 'pregnant people' exclusively unless directed by subjects. ... We try and write in a way that makes sense, is inclusive and not awkward. Usage is really dependent on the context in the story we are writing," Cavin wrote in an email. Several news organizations use "pregnant people" to collectively describe anyone who is pregnant and use "pregnant women" or other self-identified terms from a source if they are referring specifically to women.

Some may fault NPR's guidance on these terms as being too vague, but it is designed to leave room for interpretation so it can be adapted to each specific story. It's possible to be more clear: Inclusive — and more accurate — terms should be used when talking collectively about anyone who could be pregnant or give birth. And gender-specific terms should be used when talking about an individual or group who self-identifies as women.

NPR would also be well served to take a moment occasionally to explain the various terms. (We know, that's one of the reasons the Public Editor's office is here.) There is need for both terms, but language should be chosen intentionally and not just in a reflexive manner based on how the words were used in the past. — Emily Barske

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall and reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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