More on Word Power, This Time Related to Perceived Sexism and Voter Fraud

April 16th, 2013 · 2 Comments · journalism, Uncategorized, voting rights

By Denise Tessier

As a follow-up to the post on the importance of the Associated Press admonition against use of “illegals” in covering immigration, two further examples of powerful word choice by news organizations, both national and local, merit discussion.

The first involves a national obituary and its poor choice in word-phrase placement, which has left The New York Times looking dated and sexist. The second involves the altogether wrong use of words – in this case the term “voter fraud” – in a story and tweet put out by one New Mexico media outlet when no voter fraud existed.

At the same time, both cases illustrate a recent development in journalism: that stories or headlines can be constantly updated or corrected online, sometimes with much fanfare and sometimes with no mention of the change at all, leaving readers none the wiser.

In the case of The New York Times March 30 obituary, there has been much fanfare in the two weeks since.

The web site NewsDiffs, which has taken up the post-print journalism task of archiving changes made to online articles, lays out how the Times obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill first appeared and how editors changed it (after outcries of sexism on Twitter). In it, NewsDiffs illustrates what was cut and what was added using traditional copyediting marks:

She made a mean beef stroganoff,was a brilliant rocket scientist who 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, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

The system became the industry standard, and it was the achievement President Obama mentioned in 2011 in presenting her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Her devotion to familypersonal and professional balancing act also won notice. In 1980, Harper’s Bazaar magazine and the DeBeers Corporation gave her their Diamond Superwoman award for returning to a successful career after starting a family.

Mrs. Brill — she preferred to be called Mrs., her son said — is believed to have been the only woman in the United States who was actually doing rocket science in the mid-1940s, when she worked on the first designs for an American satellite.

Even while acknowledging Brill’s newsworthiness as a pioneer rocket scientist, the obit originally led with no mention of it, choosing instead to focus on her ability to cook, “follow her husband” and be a “great mom.” The fact that she was a “brilliant rock scientist” was relegated to the second paragraph.

Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan tweeted her agreement with outraged readers, even linking to a Columbia Journalism Review article that offers tips on avoiding gender-bias when covering women in the sciences.


Sullivan also wrote a post about the brouhaha, again acknowledging her agreement with the drop-jaw reaction of some readers. What’s noteworthy about this blog post is a parenthetical paragraph explaining the changes, in which Sullivan says:

(It’s not unusual for The Times to make changes to articles online. When a factual error is corrected, that is drawn to the reader’s attention, but otherwise, incremental changes are not generally noted.)

“Incremental changes are not generally noted.”

In other words, if the change is not factual, there’s no “correction” or “update” notice at the top or bottom of the story saying it’s been changed. So, if there hadn’t been this fanfare, many readers would have been none-the-wiser. I’ll come back to that point in a minute.

Also of interest is Sullivan’s inclusion of a reaction from New Mexico freelance science writer Julie Rehmeyer, who emailed Sullivan:

The change in the lede for Yvonne Brill’s obituary only makes it worse, in my opinion. Yes, the original reference to beef stroganoff was inappropriate in the extreme — but having any reference to her parenting or spouse in the first paragraph of her obituary is also inappropriate. Fixing the beef stroganoff reference without fixing the misguided nature of the article as a whole doesn’t solve the problem; it minimizes it through its insufficiency.

An additional problem with the article is mentioning the “Diamond Superwoman award” immediately after her National Medal of Technology and Innovation, as if the two awards were comparable.

Later, on April 3, Jessica Siegel pointed out in a Colombia Journalism Review post that the Times could have avoided the whole problem if its writer simply had followed the AP Stylebook – the same book that now looks down on the use of “illegals” in immigrant copy. In “To avoid sexism, follow AP style,” Siegel wrote:

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.

Which brings us back to Sullivan’s blog post. In it, Sullivan says Times obit editor William McDonald told her he didn’t think the obit was sexist, and that while he consulted with editors who changed it the night after it first appeared, he would have preferred it to remain as it was.

His reasoning was that Brill’s work in science is the sole reason her death merited a place on the the Times’ obit page, and so the writer “set up” readers with a first graph about her domestic skills in order to lead to the “ah ha” moment Siegel reminds us is an AP no-no. My take is that the obit writer was relying on use of a hold-over style from the 1970s, when stories about women’s “firsts” constantly appeared, the overuse of which no doubt prompted the AP Stylebook’s admonition against it.

Consider the Times’ obit writers properly admonished on this one.

The “voter fraud” myth

The “voter fraud” myth sequence is different, because it involved actual inaccuracy, rather than lack of finesse.

Back on January 31, the Albuquerque Journal reported on the federal court jury verdict that convicted two men of charges they conspired to steal federal money intended for voter education efforts in New Mexico under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The Journal story never used the words “voter fraud” because there was no voter fraud in the case. The charges involved theft of voter education money and conspiracy, which essentially defrauded New Mexicans of federal funds intended for use by the state.

KRQE-13 also carried a story and headline that accurately reflected the verdict and the case.

KOAT-TV Channel 7, however, headlined its version of this story with “2 found guilty in voter fraud case” and also repeated the use of “voter fraud” in its tweet promoting the story.

A colleague here at called KOAT about misuse of the term “voter fraud” and to its credit, KOAT changed the headline to “2 found guilty in fraud case.”

Also to its credit, KOAT re-tweeted its story promotion, this time without the word “voter” before fraud. But it left the rest of the tweet unchanged, leaving intact the phrase “stealing millions from New Mexico voters”. Here’s the corrected tweet:

KOAT_Headlines: Alb/State: 2 found guilty in fraud case: Two men accused of stealing millions from New Mexico voters are found g…

Yet, there’s still a problem with this: The two men were not accused of stealing millions from voters.

Rather, it would be more correct to say they stole millions from “taxpayers” or defrauded taxpayers or “the federal government.” Being imprecise with these words, even if unintentionally, arguably could lead to the impression New Mexico might have a problem with voter fraud.

It might seem minor, but this reflexive use of the term “voter fraud” is reflective of a mind-set that deliberately has been created in the minds of the public – and even some reporters.

And it’s important to point this out because reporters need to guard against perpetuating the myth that there is voter fraud.

As the Huffington Post reported last July:

Voter fraud simply isn’t a problem in this country. Studies have definitively debunked the voter fraud myth time  and again.

If you’re not convinced, check out Sunday’s post (April 14) on successful efforts by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), with help from Republicans, to “reverse a half-century of voting rights reforms” by making it more difficult for people to vote. The litany of examples of hardship for citizens perpetrated in the name of “fighting voter fraud” is blood boiling.

In other words, journalists should be focused on keeping a vigilant eye out for attacks on voting rights, rather than following red herring claims of “voter fraud.”

Changing the facts, or is it just better editing?

And here, I want to return to the Times’ policy that “incremental changes (in stories) are not generally noted.” It would appear that this has become the default policy for most media outlets, probably because it would be cumbersome to do otherwise.

Cases in point include the KOAT example, where the station apparently responded to a reader/viewer’s criticism, felt it valid and changed it, without needing to explain the change to its public.

An ABQJournalWatch reader point out last month that the Albuquerque Journal changed online one word in one of its original headlines – going from “House: Keep permanent fund payout” to “House: Extend permanent fund payout” – and in the process more accurately reflected the story. (Note: As of the time of this post, the web address for the story still reflected that original headline, using the word “keep.”)

Before online journalism, printed errors remained forever, corrected in a subsequent edition of a publication (if at all).

With the advent of online publishing, stories can be corrected after publication. Here at, if I see a typo in a post that’s already published, I’ll go back in and fix it. A correction or “update” notice would be superfluous.

New Mexico Compass co-founder Marisa DeMarco said in the Spring issue of the University of New Mexico’s Mirage magazine:

. . .you need to be ready to break stories now. You put it online right then, go back and correct your grammar and update it.

If the change corrects an error of fact, most reputable publications — including The New York Times and the Albuquerque Journal — will attach a correction to the original story.

Whether a change in tone or wording merits mention is left to the publication, and the reader might not notice the change, unless they have a particular interest in the subject, as the Santa Fe Reporter did in noticing a story revision in the Journal.

In these instances, the publication might not feel the changes worthy of an explanation, but merely “cleaning up.” But in light of the discussion The New York Times obituary about a “brilliant rocket scientist” has spawned, lack of an update notice on the story just seems odd.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Cheryl Everett

    I’ve picked bones even with my favorite Journal writers about using the term “entitlements” (21st century version of “welfare queens”) and casting Baby Boomers as insatiable gluttons of Medicare benefits. In fact, the whole subject of ageist terminology in news media writing and opining could probably fill at least one separate column.
    Thanks again to Journal Watch for spotlighting the hidden “message” in the medium.

  • James D. Robertson

    Why is the word “keep” so difficult to deal with? Webster’s Collegiate 11th edition will tell you “keep” means maintain. The second amendment to the constitution says . . . KEEP (maintain) and bear arms… not OWN and bear arms… but whose counting?

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