New Zealand’s media must stop pandering to over-sensitivity about gender identification.
I am becoming annoyed by ongoing reports that “a person” has been the subject of this or that, with no indication that it is man, woman, boy or girl.
The only plausible reason for the nomenclature is that “person” avoids the possibility of giving offence to someone who may no longer identify with their sex at birth.
How likely is that?
I am not a statistician but if less than five percent of the population identify as LGBT+ (according to Statistics New Zealand estimates), that means there is at least a 95 per cent chance the ‘person’ in the story would not be offended by reference to their birth gender.
The use of non-specific terminology is most obvious in releases from the New Zealand Police that are already blighted by a paucity of detail. A typical example:
Police can confirm two people have died following the serious crash on SH 2, Bethlehem earlier this evening. The crash, involving a motorcycle and two pedestrians occurred at around 8:30pm. Sadly, the two pedestrians died at the scene. Two other people received minor injuries.
So, not only do we not know the gender or ages of the victims, but we are left to assume that the motorcyclist had a pillion passenger and that neither was badly injured.
My (friendly) sparring partner, communications consultant and long-time Ministry of Internal Affairs advisor Colin Feslier, believes gender is immaterial in such stories. Unsurprisingly, I disagree.
Gender often adds a dimension to a story. It is material, for example, in assault cases. The recent public outrage over an assault on a police officer was generated by the fact the victim was female. Our reaction to many stories becomes coloured by the gender – and age – of those involved. A little old lady being run over by a vehicle is perceived differently to that of a middle-aged man in the same situation. Teenage boys may engage in foolhardy exploits that risk injury but when a teenaged girl is in the same situation the tone of the story changes. A random street attack takes on a potentially more sinister aspect if the victim is transsexual.
The anonymizing of individuals began with an over-reaction to privacy laws, now it has been compounded by the latest malaise to hit an increasingly woke society – the absolute dread of possibly causing offence. It is a very sad day when our news media pay homage to that particular monster.
The possibility of offence is not only remote but avoidable. People who identify as trans-gender or non-binary are not shy about it. In fact, they are proud of their identities. A polite question would establish how people wished to be identified. In fact, there is hardly an agency of state these days that does not proactively inform us that its staff members identify as he/him, she/her or them/they. It is no longer unusual to be asked how one wishes to be identified.
Whether it is a misplaced desire to avoid offence, or simply sheer laziness on the part of communications staff and others, it is time for journalists to call a halt to the ‘person’ practice. They can cite the inconsistency in releases to forestall any suggestion the comms people are simply following policy. On the same day the Police Media centre issued the release cited above, they produced another about “the death of a man” in Dunedin.
Of course, there will always be situations where gender cannot be immediately determined. Fatal fires and the discovery of bodies in advanced stages of decomposition are cases in point. All that is required then is a simple statement acknowledging the fact, as another police release on Friday did in the case of a fatal fire in Tasman.
In other circumstances, however, reporters should ask for gender identification when they receive releases that fail to provide it. If it is not forthcoming, their story should record the refusal. It would not be long before comms staff were told by their superiors that they were making fools of themselves…and their agency.
Unfortunately, too many media outlets are all too ready to accept what is handed to them and quickly shovel it onto a web page. The result is empowering for the comms staff producing releases. When their media releases are meekly accepted and published time after time, a question about their adequacy comes as a rude shock.
I think back to my early days in the craft and a chief reporter who, for all his bullying, instilled enduring lessons in his cadets. He would have had my guts for gaiters if I had handed in a story about a fatal car crash and failed to state whether the victim was male or female. I doubt that, in those unenlightened days, he could have coped with trans-gender.
Social media sourcing
While I’m in grumpy old man mode, let me continue on the roll.
I am also annoyed by the practice of media basing stories entirely on social postings.
A good example of this lazy practice appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Friday headed ‘Cop-turned-MP reveals serious head injury in line of duty’. It described how Opposition police spokesman Mark Mitchell had revealed his injury while discussing the assault on the policewoman mentioned above.
What Mitchell was quoted as saying had been lifted entirely from his Facebook page and it was clear he had not been contacted by a reporter. Had he been contacted we might have learned whether (a) the injury had been sustained in a similarly unprovoked and unanticipated assault (b) whether his assailant was arrested and, if so, the penalty imposed (c) whether he continues to suffer the “fatigue and blinding headaches” described as “unwelcome guests that have been hard to get rid of” and (d) whether this had influenced the National Party’s get-tough approach to assaults on police.
The practice of lifting from social media is fraught with issues. Not least of them is the ease with which fake pages and identities can be created (a Facebook ‘friend’ is currently battling the creation of a doppelgänger page apparently set up to sell gambling paraphernalia using his good name). Politicians and celebrities are particularly vulnerable, so much so that Facebook has a special facility for reporting imposter pages of public figures. If social media had been around when my bullying chief reporter held sway, I am sure it would have been placed firmly under his general admonition to “take nothing at face value”.
Is this the beginning of a trend?
This month the BSA introduced a new Broadcasting Standards codebook combining pay-tv, free-to-air tv and radio under a single set of standards.
Previously, each area of broadcasting had its own codebook but the distinctions were becoming increasingly blurred.
The new codebook streamlines and combines standards that cover related issues, is written in a more easily understood form, and clarifies some of the BSA’s approaches.
Now all we need is for the BSA and the Media Council to be abolished and a single, independent regulator to be formed in their place. The distinction between broadcast and print is a thing of the past.