A week ago, I wrote a quick profile about Sarah Karp, one of this year’s Studs Terkel Award winners.
I wanted it to be special, as I’ve known Karp for more than 15 years—back to the time I was hired as an editor at The Chicago Reporter, where she was a reporter.
I’ve always admired her tenacity. And I’ve loved watching over the years as those in power, particularly in government, underestimated her analytical abilities, as well as her document expertise.
She has always managed to find the path to what really happened, no matter how thick the smokescreen is around the official explanations.(Ask Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools. It’s thanks to Karp’s work that she was found guilty of defrauding the Chicago Public Schools.)
Why do people underestimate Karp?
Maybe it’s because reporters are often underestimated—or because those in power are wrapped in large, blinding egos. But I think it’s more likely that sexism is still a problem in our society.
So that is what I was trying to convey when I wrote this introduction:
Sarah Karp is a petite woman with a brown-bob hair cut and a smile that doesn’t end. But just try to stand in the way of Karp and a document, or a database, or a report or anything she may need for the story she is covering.
Of course, I had no intention of demeaning Karp.
Still, it’s not always what the writer thinks that matters. Some people saw “sexist” in what I wrote. And I am grateful to all of you who took the time to write me.
Critics don’t bother me as much as silence.
I received one note telling me how Sarah’s award was diminished by the “sexism” in my writing. I was then told that several people had complained to this editor and one even called my lede “disgusting.”
The editor who wrote to me, a respected colleague, then gave me this rule:
When writing about anyone in a professional context, everyone should avoid referring to the person’s appearance except in rare circumstances. It is irrelevant and, for a woman, usually demeaning or patronizing. What does being petite or having a cute haircut have to do with her journalistic chops? Should we expect a tough reporter to look a different way?
Exactly — that was my point. People do expect a tough reporter to look different. Why? Again, I turn to sexism.
But I’m not defending my writing, only explaining it. Which as any writer knows is your first clue: If you gotta explain it, you didn’t do a good job in the first place.
I also know I’m young enough to never stop learning.
So, I took my question to the listserv of JAWS, Journalism and Women’s Symposium, a national group of women journalists and some of the finest wordsmiths I know.
We had an excellent discussion in which I was called out for a very bad opener in the profile. Agreed. My apologies.
I also was given a good rule by someone I consider a higher authority — Merrill Perlman.
Perlman spent 25 years on the copy desks of The New York Times. Before she left, she was director of copy desks, in charge of all 150-plus copy editors there. She now consults and is an adjunct professor at the Columbia Journalism School.
I will give my last words to her because I think she explained it well.
I will be the devil’s advocate here. If you establish the relevance of a fact as you give the fact, the fact becomes richer. The test I always use is: ‘Would I say this if I flipped this?’ Would I say female nurse instead of male nurse? No. Would I say grandfather of two instead of grandmother of two? Probably not. Would I say, ‘As the only man in his nursing class. . . .’? Absolutely, if that were relevant to the content/context. Would I say, ‘He dotes on his two grandchildren’? Yes, if it were trying to portray his personality and interests. So if the point is that a small person (male or female) is often viewed as a pushover, and this one is not, size, to coin a Trumpism, is not a problem. That’s how I read Susy’s original intent. Deciding whether and when those descriptors are relevant to the content and deciding where to introduce them is the best way to eliminate irrelevant and sexist/racist/whateverist language. BTW, how many of you have said ‘female soldier’ or identified someone in a story as black without saying what everyone else is? Thought so.
Susy Schultz is president of Public Narrative and no matter how hard she tries, is far from perfect. To support thoughtful journalism, join us at the Terkel Awards April 7. See Sarah’s revised profile.