To avoid sexism, follow AP style

The New York Times would have dodged a headache in its Yvonne Brill obituary

If the New York Times journalists behind the much-criticized obituary—that originally led with pioneering scientist Yvonne Brill’s fab “beef stroganoff” and mom skills—had only turned to the AP Stylebook’s longstanding rules for covering women, they would not have found themselves so deep in the stew.

The Times uses its own stylebook, which has an entry on how to minimize gender-specific labels, but the widely-used AP one goes beyond that. I looked under “sexism,” which lacks its own entry but refers you to “man,” “mankind” and “women.” Thumbing a few pages back, the recommendations under “women” were just as I remembered—a road map of how not to write that New York Times Brill lede.

The obit’s original opener, which was later reworked, read:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist

The AP states: “Copy should not gratuitously mention family relationships when there is no relevance to the subject, as in: Golda Meir, a doughty grandmother, told the Egyptians today…” Yes, that AP example is old. Still, a story about heads of state in breaking news is not the same as an obituary summing up someone’s life, where family relationships are relevant.

Another AP point warns against “aha” lady reveals: “Copy should not express surprise that an attractive woman can be professionally accomplished, as in: Mary Smith doesn’t look the part but she’s an authority on…” In the Times case, of course, the surprise is the combination of domestic skills with rocket science.

But somehow, those simple and clear AP guidelines—unchanged for the past 40 years—have been forgotten amid an outbreak of “he said, she said” exegesis over whether it is woman-friendly or sexist to emphasize a lady rocket scientist’s domestic side. It would have been so much simpler to just haul out the Stylebook.

The lack of reference to outside journalistic standards or history in the Times’s response to popular uproar around the obit became especially glaring in obit editor William McDonald’s defiant reaction to the pummeling. In public editor Margaret Sullivan’s post about the fracas, McDonald expressed surprise that anyone was offended, explaining in direct contradiction to AP style that the obituary led with Brill’s cooking and mom status to create a reveal in the second paragraph.

“It never occurred to us that this would be read as sexist,” McDonald told Sullivan, elaborating that the obit intended to show how extraordinary the octogenarian Brill had been in her day.

Perhaps following this basic AP style no-no against could-you-believe female reveals would have prevented the intensity of Web outrage and parody. It’s an interesting question, since the Washington Post obituary of Brill draws on many of the same sources, with a similar mix of personal and professional material, but with more nuanced writing and no “aha” reveal. The Post lede reads:

Yvonne Brill, a pioneer in spacecraft propulsion who suspended a promising career to raise three children and then returned to work full time to achieve her greatest engineering successes, died March 27 at a hospital in Princeton, N.J. She was 88.

The Post avoided the outrage directed at the Times even though it, too, broke some of the AP rules in its entry on women: “Use the same standards for men and women in deciding whether to include specific mention of personal appearance or marital and family situation.”

In truth, it’s understandable that this rule was disregarded by both publications. It seems a bit unrealistic, leading to erasing personal details from stories on women, or an overwrought effort to add them to features on men, which still rarely highlight their family life. The new “Finkbeiner Test” recently suggested by veteran science journalist Ann Finkbeiner tries to even out treatment of the genders by adopting the male standard, advising against mentioning a female scientist’s status as a woman, her childcare arrangements, her husband’s job, and other points. But that imposes a new set of problems—censoring the experiences of many women scientists and what they may want to talk about. Still, as Finkbeiner points out, female scientists’ struggles with these issues are no longer news, but actually a new gendered cliché.

To get longer perspective on best practices for covering women, I tracked down Eileen Alt Powell, 67, recently retired from the AP and one of the original editors of the revolutionary late-1970s AP Stylebook revamp.

“What?!!” she audibly sucked in air on hearing that people are still debating the basic definition of sexist writing. “I’m just shocked we’re even talking about this in 2013.”

The team of AP Stylebook editors, headed by Powell, Howard Angione, and the late Christopher French, went through repeated revisions, sending proposed rules back and forth with member newspaper editors. The women’s entries in the late 1970s were even more contentious than those on race, she recalled, but in the end there was widespread agreement. (The 1980 AP edition allows the use of “Ms.” several years before The New York Times permitted that neutral courtesy title.)

“There was quite a bit of consensus about the changes that were made in the late 1970s,” she said, wondering why the terms of the debate were not more clear today. “When I die, I hope my obit does not read, ‘She made a helluva beef stroganoff and also was a foreign correspondent.’”

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Jessica Seigel is an adjunct journalism professor at New York University whose writing has appeared in numerous outlets, including The New York Times, Ms. Magazine, and NPR. Follow her on Twitter at @jessicaseagull Tags: , , ,