A couple of weeks ago, the New York TimesAfter Deadline” blog took on an issue close to my heart—the use of descriptive adjectives as nouns to refer to a group of people that share a particular characteristic. I’ve discussed my reservations about that usage briefly here before, but I thought it merited another mention. The “After Deadline” post specifically addresses use of the term “disabled” as a noun, arguing that “the difference between ‘the disabled’ and ‘disabled people’ (or ‘people with disabilities’) is subtle but significant. …it’s better to refer to people who, among other characteristics, have some disability, rather than to use the disability as the sole label.”

I couldn’t agree more, but wish that Times Deputy News Editor Philip B. Corbett, who maintains the blog and the Times stylebook, had gone on to generalize his conclusion to other nouns and other groups of people. According to the stylebook as cited by Corbett, “the disabled” should be avoided as a noun because “it may seem to equate widely diverse people and undervalue the productive parts of their lives.” I understand that the second listed reason for avoiding the term—undervaluing productive parts of peoples’ lives—applies specifically to “disabled,” which some might perceive as emphasizing a negative characteristic. But the first reason—the desire to avoid equating widely diverse people—applies equally to nouns like “blacks” and “homosexuals” (which are both used relatively often in the Times, as here and here).

I do think that there’s an extra element of “othering” in the fact that the adjective-noun “disabled” is always preceded by the article “the.” The only other adjective-nouns I can think of that are used that way are nationality nouns like “the Chinese” or “the French.” And the fact that it would sound absurd to discuss “the Americans” in a newspaper story suggests that that construction only works with groups that are unfamiliar or “other” enough to the audience that they can be comfortably grouped into a monolith. But why not avoid the problem altogether by using “disabled people,” “white people,” and “Senegalese people”? Adjectives are the right parts of speech for that kind of information because their function is to describe things, where the function of nouns is to define things.

I just wanted to point to this interesting conversation between Megan Carpentier of Jezebel and Latoya Peterson of Racialicious about the relationship between race and the way disaster deaths are covered, pegged to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. And I wanted especially to point to Peterson’s blog post at Racialicious in which she discusses the earlier conversation (Racialicious, by the way, is always publishing interesting perspectives on race in the media). The original and meta discussions (and the comments attached to both) shed interesting light on the issues I looked at here. I still think language about and images of violence are necessary reminders of our responsibilities to the events being described. But it’s definitely important to remember how problematic that dynamic is when the current reality seems to be that the deaths of people considered “other” are treated more graphically than the deaths of white people in the U.S. and Europe.

The whole question makes me wonder if we should be thinking about the manner in which horrors are described, rather than the extent to which they are described or avoided. Is there a way to show violent death in all its horror without making it into “disaster porn”? To avoid the tabloidy, “house of horrors” approach and treat deaths with real gravity but without sanitizing violence? If that were possible, it seems like it would be the way to achieve the more complex understanding of “respect for the dead” briefly broached by Megan in the Jezebel conversation.

One of the most frustrating elements of news coverage of the 2004 election for me was the persistence of the phrases “moral issues” and “moral values” in descriptions of socially conservative voting patterns. Obviously socially liberal positions come from at least as moral a place as do socially conservative ones. I doubt that reporters meant to imply that they don’t, but using “values” as a shorthand for social conservatism left readers with that strange and inaccurate impression. I was particularly disturbed at the tendency to describe support for anti-gay measures in that way, because while the issue of gay rights is emphatically a moral one, I don’t think that the right lies with the discriminatory side.

So I approached the coverage of the passing of this year’s four anti-gay ballot measures with trepidation. I found, however, that the 2008 coverage wasn’t as ready to equate morality with social conservatism, and in some cases mainstream news reports acknowledged that the winning side hurt people by denying them their civil rights. The main New York Times article opens with the moving image of “a giant rainbow-colored flag in the gay-friendly Castro neighborhood of San Francisco…flying at half-staff” over the success of California’s Proposition 8. And for the most part, support for the bans was attributed to “social conservatives” or “religious conservatives,” rather than the “values voters” of 2004. By framing Proposition 8’s passage as “paradoxical” in an election that was so historic for the history of civil rights in the U.S., a CNN story acknowledges that gay marriage is indeed a civil-rights issue. And it was heartening to see news organizations recycle the (accurate) language of Proposition 8 itself, which points out that the measure seeks to deny a right, “the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.” There were a host of good stories speculating about the emotional, legal, and practical effects of Proposition 8 on same-sex couples who had married in California.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof seems to think that this descriptive evolution is a problem—or that is in part how I read his election day blog post about the relationship between his papers’ reporters and social conservatism. Kristof’s post dismisses—correctly, I think—the claim that the Times has a political bias, but it frets about the paper’s socially liberal ethos. There may be truth to some of his complaints, and I haven’t thought much about the way the Times addresses issues like gun control and abortion. But Kristof also mentions the Times‘ coverage of gay marriage as a problem. He points approvingly to a 2004 column by then–New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent in which Okrent laments the absence of stories exploring “partner abuse in the gay community, about any social difficulties that might be encountered by children of gay couples or about divorce rates,” among other issues that he thinks are necessary elements of “the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires.” Presumably he is suggesting that such stories are relevant to the question of whether gay marriage should be legal. In somewhat sarcastic language, Okrent bemoans the preponderance of positive stories about people who have been granted this right:

But for those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that ”For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy” (March 19); that the family of ”Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home” (Jan. 12) is a new archetype; and that ”Gay Couples Seek Unions in God’s Eyes” (Jan. 30). I’ve learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I’ve met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I’ve been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn’t even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you’d have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

Okrent’s column drew a great deal of mail, some of which he published in a subsequent column. One letter, which made a strong impression on me and which I have remembered often since, made the following concise argument:

In making the case that The Times’s coverage of the gay marriage issue has shown a liberal imbalance by printing articles portraying gay marital bliss over articles describing potential marital strife, you confuse balance with illogical overextension.

During the civil rights movement, it was not incumbent upon newspapers to run articles about the risks of African-Americans drowning in public swimming pools as arguments against desegregating those pools.

LAURA NEWMAN
Astoria, Queens, July 26, 2004

Kristof and Okrent seem to want to cloud what should be a straightforward question of discrimination and equality in the interest of appeasing a (large) segment of the population that does not want to consider the question in those terms.

Same-sex marriage and adoption are civil rights issues. So many newspapers have had to face their institutional regrets for not covering the Civil Rights Movements of the 1940s, 50s and 60s in terms of objective right and wrong. That ugly period in media history should serve as a cautionary tale to media organizations working to cover modern civil rights issues. Perhaps the coverage of gay rights in the 2008 election indicates that in one area, at least, the lesson is finally being heeded.

This incredibly offensive and inaccurate headline appeared on CNN.com on Monday: “Ellen DeGeneres ‘marries’ Portia Rossi.” There was, of course, nothing pretend about the marriage–DeGeneres and de Rossi wed in California over the weekend. I personally don’t think that a marriage’s legal status is what should confer legitimacy on the union–I wouldn’t use scare quotes to call into question the legitimacy of a marriage between consenting adults in any state. But I really can’t imagine how anyone at CNN could perceive those quotes as ethical or accurate when the marriage in question was entirely legal.

It's hard to imagine what they were thinking...

It's hard to imagine what they were thinking...

The editors at CNN.com apparently came to the same conclusion because they changed their headline later in the morning to “Ellen DeGeneres reportedly weds Portia Rossi.” Hopefully, the original headline was the work of an individual that slipped through the editorial cracks, instead of the more troubling possibility that it was approved for publication by several sets of eyes. Either way, it should never have appeared. It should have sent up an armada of red flags to anyone who saw it. And the fact that it didn’t immediately do so suggests a culture–if not of overt homophobia, then of a tendency to advance socially conservative and discriminatory narratives about family life.

CNN.com rethinks its headline.

CNN.com rethinks its headline.

Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell’s column this week addresses her crusade to increase the Post‘s commitment to substantive coverage of the 2008 presidential election campaign. Howell last addressed the topic in a February column, having launched a project to analyze the paper’s campaign coverage in November.

Her findings, kept in a publicly-accessible spreadsheet, indicate that around twice as many Post stories about the election have focused on the political horse race than have focused on the candidate’s stances on issues or personal histories. I would guess that that ratio would be about the same at any national news outlet (except cable news, which must have a much much higher proportion of horse race coverage), but it would feel nice to imagine that Post felt some kind of special obligation as the county’s leading political news outlet to cover the presidential election as a substantive event with real moral consequences rather than an exercise in strategy.

Howell expresses more tolerance than I feel for some amount of horse-race reporting in the Post (or inside-baseball reporting, or whatever sports metaphor you prefer), arguing that “it’s important to know what is happening in the campaigns.” I’m not actually convinced that that’s true—it’s hard for me imagine what good it will do me as a voter and citizen to know which campaign advisers are hired or fired or how a campaign plans to position its candidate. Such stories might sometimes offer glimpses into a candidate’s character, I guess, but that is rarely their focus and I can’t imagine any good being served by their incredible prevalence, particularly when that prevalence is at the expense of substantive reporting.

And while I’m applauding attempts to shame serious news outlets into issue-oriented election coverage, the Columbia Journalism Review blogs do an excellent job of tracking the most egregious examples of horse race coverage and drawing attention to good, substantive political reporting.

A friend alerted me to this post on Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog, and I wanted to share a CBS News video that Cole points to. It features Army Times reporter and former soldier Kelly Kennedy discussing in gruesome detail the horrible things that she witnessed as an embedded reporter in Iraq. She has a really interesting perspective on the question of whether to report physically graphic details of war, and discusses how her desire to communicate her growing understanding of soldiers’ experiences sometimes conflicted with concerns about burdening her audience with the harrowing details. She catalogs some of the reasons that war reporters don’t report the worst of what they encounter.

A big question about the coverage of Cyclone Nargis was raised for me from this post by Tami at Racialicious (it was originally posted at What Tami Said). Tami describes her own experience watching CNN coverage of the storm:

There were bodies and bodies and more bodies–Burmese men, women, even children, dead, bloated, discolored and rotting in the Southeast Asian sun; arms and legs akimbo as if their owners had been tossed like rag dolls. I know this is what death looks like, especially when it takes place in a poor country where the people have been colonized, militarized and rocked by ethnic strife and drug trafficking. But I watched the television and couldn’t help thinking that this video desecration of the already desecrated was another example of how American culture sees brown people as somehow less human.

She goes on to challenge the value of showing such graphic images of death, and to assert that the victims’ race influences media decisions about whether to show those images or not:

What are the chances that CNN will show the broken bodies of the 22 people killed in twisters that plowed across the central United States this weekend, y’know so we get “the enormity of the story?” We did not need to see graphic footage of victims to understand the enormity of Oklahoma City or 9/11. I do remember seeing some footage of the dead in Katrina–not as graphic as the Myanmar coverage–but we all know those folks weren’t American anyway, they were “refugees.” (Tongue firmly in cheek, here.

I especially take Tami’s point about images of dead people from the 2000 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks. Showing such images would have been considered impossibly disrespectful. Is it the fact that the victims of the cyclone live far away, have different colors of skin from most of the U.S. news audience, and live lives that seem remote to us that makes it more acceptable to show images of their dead bodies?

When I brought this problem up with friends, one suggested that the answer to that question might lie partly in the immediacy of the Oklahoma and September 11 attacks to the majority of the U.S. news audience. For whatever reason, we felt those events as tragedies that were “close to home;” we didn’t need graphic images to understand them. So perhaps graphic images can serve as a (poor) substitute to whatever nationalistic or cultural feelings bind us to the victims of homegrown tragedies?

In general, I incline toward encouraging graphic language about—and images of—mass death, because I think it is one way to heighten the audience’s ethical awareness of the events that caused the deaths. I think it is an important means of piercing Michael Ignatieff’s “carapace of self-absorption and estrangement that separates us from the moral worlds of others.” But plenty of thinkers-about-journalism have argued that physically realistic images of death can serve as a sort of “war-” or “disaster-porn,” objectifying the subjects of the portrayal without engaging the reader on a deeper level. And if it is true that we see more images of nonwhite victims of natural disaster, then that understanding of graphic images has to be taken even more seriously.

Ignatieff goes on: “The struggle to believe one’s senses is at the heart of the process of moving from voyeurism to commitment.” So I guess the question is whether images of dead bodies help us to believe what is being described, or wheter—since it is so often “others” who are pictured—it reinforces or amplifies our estrangement from them.

A couple of weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune‘s public editor, Kathleen Parker. The Parker column, which sparked so much comment that McNulty devoted a second column to reader responses to the controversy, defends the argument of a white voter that Barack Obama is less than “a full-blooded American:”

It’s about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots.

Some run deeper than others and therein lies the truth of Fry’s political sense. In a country that is rapidly changing demographically—and where new neighbors may have arrived last year, not last century—there is a very real sense that once-upon-a-time America is getting lost in the dash to diversity.

It’s pretty easy to see what upset the Tribune readers cited by McNulty in his column, and McNulty acknowledges that Parker’s ideas are likely to be “ridiculous and repugnant … to many, if not most, Americans.” But he goes on to defend the piece’s placement in the Tribune:

Anyone who believes that the race issue will be dormant in the general election—presuming that Obama is the Democratic candidate—is hiding from reality. It remains a divisive issue and, as Parker noted, some fear that “their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative.”

I think it is the news media’s responsibility to highlight not just the political stratagems but the attitudes that help create them.

The aim of the Tribune’s Commentary page is to display a wide range of subjective opinions, even those some may consider offensive. Printing a column is not the same as sanctioning it.

I don’t think I can agree with McNulty. Printing a column is not the same thing as agreeing with it, but it does amount to sanctioning it by assuming that its ideas will contribute in a meaningful way to the national conversation. There are obviously some ideas so offensive and devoid of intellectual and social value that respected newspapers would not consider publishing a column that espoused them. The Tribune decided that Paker’s column fell on the acceptable side of that divide despite her extensive use of what McNulty calls “code words” for racism.

To argue that the op-ed page is one big mirror on which is reflected the nation’s (or Illinois’) entire range of opinions, however offensive, is either disingenuous or silly. So is comparing the publishing of Parker’s column to printing news reports of racist attitudes (as McNulty does later in his column). It is indeed “the news media’s responsibility to highlight not just the political stratagems but the attitudes that help create them,” but when those attitudes are highly offensive, news reporting is the appropriate place to address them. The opinion page should be a forum for intelligent debate. By placing Parker’s racist column there, the Tribune asserted that it could contribute something to the national debate.

The dust-up recalled the uproar over the Washington Post‘s decision to publish in its Sunday “Outlook” section Charlotte Allen’s anti-feminist March 2 column entitled “We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?” It’s quite a piece—deeply sexist, as thousands of outraged readers pointed out to the Post, and I think it’s also fair to characterize it as silly, somewhat rambling, and full of generalizations that don’t make a lot of sense. What struck me most about the piece was what seemed to me an utter lack of intellectual content. It’s hard to see what serious thinkers about gender issues would latch onto in order to engage it.

Post editors originally defended their decision to publish the piece by calling it “tongue-in-cheek” (a characterization that Allen herself disclaimed), but they addressed the controversy extensively in print, allowing several columnists to rebut Allen’s piece and publishing several of the many, many critical letters the newspaper received from readers. Deborah Howell, the Post‘s ombudsman, concluded that the newspaper shouldn’t have published the piece because it was a misguided attempt to coat offensive ideas in humor. I agree with Howell (though I don’t think the humor is the root of the column’s problem), and with MissLaura of Daily Kos, who argued that “Charlotte Allen isn’t the problem. The Washington Post is.”

I like that the editorial pages of respected newspapers are willing to publish controversial, and even blatantly wrong-headed, opinions. But such pieces are only valuable when they contribute something other than vitriol to the national debate(s). Garden-variety racism and sexism aren’t likely to do that. Nor are non garden–variety racism and sexism, for that matter.

I asked my friend Seth, an economics professor at Towson University and the genius behind The Blog of Diminishing Returns, to help me through some of the ideas in this (month-old, yes, I’m a little behind in my podcasts) On the Media interview. The interview is with Kevin Phillips, a political analyst and former Nixon aid, who argued in the May issue of Harpers that in striving to improve the U.S.’s economy’s image, politicians have altered the criteria behind economic statistics to the extent that international comparisons have become less meaningful. Phillips points to the different unemployment numbers collected by the government, and its choice to use a lower number:

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, let me start with unemployment. It’s always a question of what the workforce is and how you define people who aren’t quite in it. And this might sound like it’s fairly simple, but it’s not remotely. Government unemployment measurements run from the U-1 to the U-3 and up to the U-6. Now I’ll stop sounding like an aircraft designation [BROOKE LAUGHS] and back up here.

The U-3 is the number that they generally report. The U-6 includes a lot more people who maybe they’re looking for a job, maybe they’re not. There’s some larger explanation of why they’re not working. And the U-6 has unemployment about twice as high as the U-3.

He goes on in the interview to argue that the use of this statistic negatively impacts Americans’ understanding of our economy:

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I think Americans tend to believe that we have lesser unemployment than Europe, and part of the reason for that is the media use the number which really is better than Europe’s, because frankly [LAUGHS] it’s a little bit loaded to be that way. I think, frankly, the one that runs between nine and ten is the more revealing.

I finished listening to the interview with a Chicken Little sense that there was no way to accurately report important data like unemployment and the GDP in ways that lead to useful analysis. Seth’s response to Phillips’ thoughts on unemployment data were comforting, though. Seth thinks that the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ unemployment calculations are not as byzantine as the interview suggests, and that the agency chooses to report the U-3 in an effort to increase understanding by allowing comparisons of U.S. unemployment data over time:

In the end I don’t think the Bureau of Labor Statistics is trying to game the system. They are using the traditional unemployment definition (U-3) so it is in some sense easier to compare across time. Although it is worth noting that the measure of unemployment must change overtime. For example the reported measure only included household heads until 1978, so in many cases women were excluded.

I guess the biggest journalistic lesson I see in both discussions is to vigilantly provide context to reported numbers. I would guess that many avid news consumers could cite unemployment and other economic data, but wouldn’t last long in a conversation about the way those numbers are measured or determined. It is certainly true of me.

Maybe one of these days I can convince Seth to give us his thoughts on the GNP/GDP switch addressed in Phillips’ On the Media interview.

The devastating natural disasters in Myanmar and China that have dominated this month’s news have unfortunately offered a good platform for examining the way news media outlets describe deaths that occur as a result of natural disasters. The question of how those deaths are communicated to distant readers is interesting in itself, but it also sets up interesting comparisons to the description of war deaths.

Some research I’ve conducted myself has suggested that natural disaster reporting is not more likely to use graphic physical descriptions of dead bodies than war reporting, but the cyclone and earthquake coverage in the last three weeks has made me want to revisit those findings.

The majority of the coverage that I have encountered has seemed both to discuss death more, and to evoke it more graphically, than an average day of war coverage. Entire lengthy articles are devoted to death tolls, and articles about other aspects of the cyclone and the earthquake are generally framed in terms of the human destruction that characterizes their aftermath (in several articles about the bureaucratic attitude of the Myanmar junta toward international offers of aid, reporters have juxtaposed it with the worsening physical conditions in the storm’s aftermath, for example). By contrast, death and killing can sometimes feel like a secondary element of war, mentioned in passing in articles that focus on military strategy or the political wrangling that usually accompanies war’s most violent episodes.

The nature of the descriptions of death in natural disaster reporting has also been notable. The descriptions are—appropriately—horrifying, describing the visual, tactile and olfactory attributes of death in ways that evoke the pain and horror of death. In the cyclone particularly, human remains and the difficulties inherent in disposing of them have been a major focus.

The screenshots below (from The New York Times online and CNN.com) are some examples I ran into this week of cyclone coverage specifically focusing on the physical realities of death:

CNN.com Front Page, May 8

NYT.com Front Page, May 9

CNN.com Front Page, May 13

If it’s true, as anecdotal evidence suggests, that the natural disaster descriptions include more, and more graphic, descriptions of death than war coverage, there are lots of possible explanations for this fact, most of them very reasonable from the perspective of journalists and editors. Chief among them, of course, is that though wars often kill many hundreds of thousands of people in a relatively short space of time, there are not likely to be tens of thousands of unburied bodies at any one moment. The U.S. news media is notoriously event-focused, and natural disaster deaths become “events” in themselves due to their much higher rate (in “deaths per minute”) than war deaths.

But I think it may also be true that war deaths aren’t considered as central to war as natural disaster deaths are to natural disasters. Many articles are published each year that discuss ongoing wars without once mentioning death explicitly. While death and destruction of human habitats are what make storms and earthquakes newsworthy, war is understood to have meaning outside of the deaths that it causes. Here’s how Elaine Scarry, in The Body in Pain, describes this phenomenon (emphasis hers):

The essential structure of war…resides in the relation between its own largest parts, the relation between the collective casualties that occur within war, and the verbal issues (freedom, national sovereignty, the right to a disputed ground, the extra-territorial authority of a particular ideology) that stand outside war, that are there before the act of war begins and after it ends, that are understood by warring populations as the motive and justification and will again be recognized after the war as the thing substantiated or (if one is on the losing side) not substantiated by war’s activity

Regardless of whether the explanation for the apparent discrepancy between descriptions of death in war and natural disaster reporting is practical or cultural, its effects seem important to examine. Do the prominently placed images and descriptions of dead bodies and ruined cities in coverage of the Myanmar cyclone and the earthquake in China make it more difficult for the reader to ignore those deaths than the deaths that occur every day in Iraq and Afghanistan? Should journalists and editors try to find ways to use the tools of natural disaster coverage to feature the carnage that results from war? In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss more about other ethical questions raised by graphic images of death and graphic physical language describing it in the news.