‘They’ deserves a voice too

Zoe Stratos | opinions editor

Oct. 7, 2021

As a journalist, I always ask the same old questions when interviewing a source for a story: What is your name? Can you spell that? Where are you from? It’s become a sort of habit. Always ask the basics before getting into the thick of an interview.

For all the difficult questions that follow the “what’s your name,” you’d think we’d be able to tack on quite a simple one: What are your preferred pronouns?

On Zoom calls, you’ve probably seen fellow students and faculty with a display name followed by their preferred pronouns in parentheses. Or you’ve visited someone’s Instagram profile with the new addition of displaying pronouns in their bio.

Gender neutral pronouns have recently come to the forefront of the world’s attention, garnering support for asking before assuming someone’s identity. No matter what a person may seem like they go by, we should always ask — just in case.

According to a study done by Pew Research in 2018, approximately one in five Americans know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns. 

For some Americans, old and young, Democrat or Republican, asking about pronouns may be new or unfamiliar, or gender neutral may feel grammatically incorrect.

However, for many in transgender or gender non-conforming communities, being able to represent their identity through the use of their preferred pronouns is a way to be respected for who they are and reduce experiences of being misgendered.

It’s especially important in the world of journalism. As journalists, we’re in a position to give a voice to the common everyday American, and that’s been our mission since the early days of our democracy.

Pronouns have become a point of friction among copy editors and reporters. Guidelines have long told reporters to use pronouns in conjunction with a person’s preferred gender identity or one that is “consistent with the way individuals live publicly,” the 2016 AP Stylebook said.

Although slightly relaxed, the AP Stylebook continues to put restrictions on its usage.

“They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable.”

I disagree with the journalistic so-called Bible that I’ve been following for almost eight years now.

“Rewording” can work only so many times. We use someone’s pronouns in an article many more times than their last name.

Before nonbinary pronouns became regularly used, we often used ‘they’ pronouns for a single person, though typically when the word or phrase it substitutes for doesn’t refer to a specific individual. Sometimes we say “tell them you’ll call them back,” even if we know their gender.

So why isn’t it standard that we use singular they in journalism? And why do institutions, universities, publishers and media outlets like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — a publication I personally work for — still encourage all this gendering? The Post-Gazette still uses courtesy titles in articles, for example, “According to Mr. Biden…”

Upon asking about how to attribute those who don’t identify as a ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ — they didn’t really have an answer.

It’s about time to drop the courtesy titles, and instead have the courtesy to ask a person what they want.

Journalism shapes the perception of the public. In choosing to not use preferred pronouns or choosing not to ask, you craft public perception in a way that discriminates against people who are not cisgender.

When an article runs and doesn’t use the subjects preferred pronouns, a journalist is only adding to the discrimination they’ve faced all of their life.

How can we as journalists write about injustice and reform while wronging someone who put their trust in us?

There really is no reason strong enough not to ask.

We, as journalists, are bound to truth, so listening to their truth is our job.