Journalism is awesome because you get to go face to face with people of so many different backgrounds and perspectives and share their stories.
But there’s a reason so many people are reluctant to talk to the media. One thoughtless mistake by a journalist and a person could feel like they’ve been used to create headlines. Reporters need to remember that they’re writing about real human beings, not just facts and figures.
Your goal as a journalist is to balance your duty to people on both sides of the article: to your sources, and to your readers. Your sources deserve to be represented accurately, and your readers deserve the truth. Since you can’t do that second part without doing the first one, it’s important to avoid misrepresenting a source’s background.
Today I’m writing about two difficult situations I’ve found myself in as a reporter regarding a source’s background, and how I resolved them.
Scenario #1: Gender diversity
Two years ago, I was interviewing a Homestuck cosplayer at Otakon. We were discussing the fandom and it was going well. Only, part way through, I noticed that the cosplayer was wearing a gender-neutral costume. Their name was gender-neutral as well. I was bound to use pronouns in my story. But I couldn’t just ask, “Are you a boy? A girl?”
The way I resolved this situation was by asking an indirect question, which appeared to seek an answer about something else while giving me the information I really needed.
I said, “I’m pretty new to Homestuck. Is this a cosplay, a crossplay, or something else?”
“It isn’t crossplay, just a regular cosplay. I’m dressed as a guy named Karkat,” the interviewee, whom I now knew identified as male, responded.
Just to be safe, I also asked if the interviewee had a blog or Tumblr, which he did, and if I could look at it for more research. On that blog, he used male pronouns consistently.
Maybe you’re wondering, “Why didn’t you just ask outright to avoid misgendering him? Reporters are supposed to ask the hard questions, right?” In this case, it wasn’t at all relevant to the subject of the story. If I were writing about gender identity in Homestuck fandom, it’d be a totally different situation. But in this case, I didn’t want to give the interviewee the wrong idea about what my article was going to be about.
Scenario #2: Language diversity
More recently, I was preparing for a phone call with a source on the other side of the country. We’d exchanged a few emails, and I noted his English was choppy but didn’t think anything of it. I’m usually pretty good with accents. But after five minutes on the phone listening to him speak, I wasn’t able to understand more than a third of what he was saying!
The way I resolved this situation was by getting off the phone.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, “but I think my phone is cutting out. Can I send you my questions through an email message instead?”
He agreed, and promptly sent me answers to my questions. I edited them for grammar before publishing because—you guessed it—language diversity was not at all relevant to the story. The only relevant thing was representing my source’s views correctly, and I assessed that I would not be able to if I couldn’t accurately transcribe what he was saying over the phone.
Probably, my source saw through my phone excuse. His accent is pretty thick, so I’m probably not the first American reporter he’s had trouble with.
How would you have resolved these two situations? What would you have done differently?
Illustration by emperpep