Our View: Staying neutral on an issue of neutrality

DKS Editors

American linguist Noam Chomsky has referred to language as “a weapon in much of human affairs.”  Indeed, we acknowledge existing inequities in our language that can often make certain speakers feel disenfranchised, especially when they feel they cannot adequately identify themselves within the confines of their own language.

In a story published on Jan. 24, titled “KSU group aids transgender students,” we refrained from using any gender pronouns. We referred to our sources who identify as transgender by last name only instead of their preferred pronouns “ze” and “zir.” This decision was made after a discussion among editors, and we placed an editor’s note at the end of the story explaining why we made it.

When the decision and the note spurred some response from our readers on KentWired, the members of the editorial board discussed the matter again. While we don’t discredit the main points commenters made, we stand by our journalistic objective of remaining completely neutral and unbiased in our reporting. This includes not only notifying readers of any stylistic changes to a story when they are made but also remaining true to the ideals of journalism ethics — which, for good or for ill, often refer us back to convention and tradition.

We follow a specific style established largely by the Associated Press that does not allow words that are not recognized by the majority of society. We chose to refer to the story’s sources by last name because this was the most factually accurate descriptor available without subjecting those sources to isolating, gender-based pronouns such as “he” or “she.” The story included that gender-neutral pronouns are preferred.

From our perspective, using the last name was necessary because the transgender issue — including the use of pronouns — is currently evolving. Of course, this reflects the very essence of the story, which focused on a student group aiming for change; however, we felt, at this moment, using the gender-neutral pronouns would have entered us in the debate, thus invalidating our unbiased intentions.  

Different from using “he” or “she” — words that are not under debate or scrutiny — use of gender-neutral pronouns is a form of advocacy. Adopting vernacular that is not yet recognized indicates solidarity with those who use it.

While we acknowledge language can often ostracize its speakers, our main focus as journalists must continue to be accuracy and objectivity.  While we support discussion of this issue so that society can progress toward a more inclusive atmosphere, we are not an active member in that discussion. We opted for the best, middle ground approach that caused the least amount of harm and consequence for the community.