Last week, former intelligence analyst Bradley Manning announced through his lawyer that he identifies as a woman and wants to be called Chelsea Manning.
For the media outlets, the immediate challenge was whether to refer to Manning as Bradley or Chelsea. Should they use masculine or feminine pronouns?
I don’t envy the reporters or editors who had to deal with this question on deadline. There’s little enough time in daily journalism to write and edit before you have to publish. There’s no time to discuss the finer points of pronoun usage.
Still, several of the major media outlets already have a rule on file for what to do in a case like this. Reuters, the Associated Press (AP), and the New York Times (NYT) all have a rule that basically says to use the pronoun the individual identifies with.
As uncomfortable as it may make some people feel, Manning’s August 22 statement makes it clear how she wishes to be referred to.
So why did some news stories continue to use masculine pronouns?
There’s the argument that readers are already familiar with Bradley Manning. To suddenly switch pronouns now would be confusing.
That’s true to a point. But let’s give our readers some credit for intelligence. News stories covering Manning’s announcement would make a pronoun switch obvious in the same story. And follow-up stories need to remind readers only briefly what’s going on:
Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning …
Bradley Manning, who now goes by Chelsea Manning …
Copyeditors are there to ensure both the pronoun switch and the brief reminders are done as elegantly as the story allows.
Some stories paired the masculine pronouns with the masculine name and the feminine pronoun with the feminine name. The Atlantic Wire published a story announcing the change using he in the lead and she throughout the rest of the story. A note at the bottom of the story acknowledges that the original version used he throughout; the change to she was made later.
Other stories danced away from the problem by not using a pronoun at all, as in this Washington Post story. I wonder how much rewriting the reporters and copyeditors had to do to avoid using pronouns for Manning?
Style rules exist in part to guide us through difficult choices on deadline. We don’t have time for debates near press time, no matter what kind of publishing we do. Style rules are created when we have time to think and discuss.
The style rules I noted at the beginning work here. Clearly, news stories have to guide their readers along on the pronoun shift, but it can be neatly done. The Atlantic Wire’s guidance worked just fine.
Not using pronouns and ignoring a house rule aren’t a solution; they’re avoidance. Copyeditors shouldn’t ignore their style guide because they disagree with the situation connected to the rule.
When we have style rules to guide us through murky waters on deadline, we should use them. Otherwise, what’s the point of the style guide?
“The goal here should be to move as quickly as possible from referring to Manning by a male name and male pronouns to her female name and pronouns,” writes Amanda Marcotte for Slate. “The sooner journalists stop writing ‘Bradley’ and start writing ‘Chelsea,’ the quicker everyone following this story will adapt.”