Monday, April 01, 2013

A couple of thoughts on the NY Times obit controversy

Update:  I've thought about this some more (unlike most, apparently, I find this a tricky subject), and would qualify my post below in one way:  While I think most outraged readers of the Brill obit made little effort to get into the writer's head and imagine why he did what he did in the lede -- like, maybe this aspect of domesticity was that important to the subject?  and obits are about subject, not anyone else? -- it is still on  anyone publishing anything to anticipate public reaction.  I respect Martin and McDonald for standing behind their story (under Copernican pressure to recant), but the fact that they had no idea they might get the flak is on them.

One more note:  In discussion of this obit on the blog Jezebel, Andrea Tierson contributed this:

Maybe the Times was trying to humanize its subject. cf. the lede of the paper's Albert Einstein obit (1955): 

"In 1904, Albert Einstein, then an obscure young man of 23, could be seen daily in the late afternoon wheeling a baby carriage on the streets of Bern, Switzerland, halting now and then, unmindful to the traffic around him, to scribble down some mathematical symbols in the notebook that shared the carriage with his infant son, also named Albert."

Looks like he's being noted as world's best dad before his scientific prowess is mentioned.

Here is what is known about a New York Times obituary on rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, and the Twitter outrage that followed.The story's original lede read as follows:

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

After a lot of outraged reactions on social media, the lede was subsequently changed to read:

She 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.

"New York Times Changes Sexist Obit About Scientist Yvonne Brill," the Daily Beast proclaimed.  "Responsive!" a Twitter follower noted approvingly.

Beyond reversing the order of her scientific and domestic lives and removing the stroganoff reference, the story remained unchanged.

Sullivan in a blog post today summarized her thoughts and the paper's decision to alter its lede.  She cited an interesting and useful Columbia Journalism Review article which alerts writers to avoid gender stereotyping when writing about female scientists; spoke with Martin and William McDonald, his editor (both of whom stood behind the original story); and concluded that framing the story as one about gender "had the effect of undervaluing what really landed Mrs. Brill on the Times obituaries page: her groundbreaking scientific work."

As an early and lonely defender of this obit, I would like to make just a few points:

The CJR article Sullivan cited as instructive in avoiding gender stereotypes quotes one of its primary sources saying it is legitimate in her view to bring gender discrimination issues into a profile of a woman in science:

For instance, if you’re writing a story about sexism in science or about the gender gap in leadership roles in science or you’re writing about sex-related issues specifically.

What’s not ok is to turn a story about a scientist’s professional life into one about her personal life or her gender roles..

Brill was denied the option of majoring in her chosen field of engineering at the University of Manitoba, ostensibly due to a lack of accommodations.  While I understand that obits about any minority or underrepresented group present ready-made cliches for the taking -- and that one of these can be that the subject "overcame barriers" -- not being able to major in your chosen field to me seems like an obstacle worth reporting.

No fair reading of Martin's obit could lead one to conclude that Brill's many contributions, from developing more efficient rocket thrusters to contributing to rocket and satellite designs -- work that landed her in the Inventors Hall of Fame -- were remarkable because, as the CJR piece correctly warns us against doing, "She accomplished all of this while being a woman!"

The stroganoff lede that aroused so much controversy sets up a different, and more complicated, kind of contrast -- between a woman who preferred to be addressed as "Mrs.," and who embraced some of those societal norms about gender while, yes, overcoming them.

Also on Monday, writer Paul Carr on pandodaily took on what he called "readers of the Daily Internet Outrage Memo."  It's an interesting take, and the points he makes about writing are particularly relevant.

At the same time, I would not dismiss objections to the original lede as groundless.  I can  see how it looks: after a century of consciousness raising about gender equality and seemingly great strides forward, an eminent newspaper bends over backwards to link a brilliant female scientist to her cooking.

I just think a lot of the people protesting this are getting the story wrong. 

1 comment:

stephenmiller said...

Interesting to bring up the Times's Einstein obit - I was unaware of it and it's pretty creative. Unlike the Brill obit, the lede actually hints at his achievements. Note that in both obits the headline lets you know that an important scientist is the subject.

One of the better things to come out of this is a parody obit of Einstein based on his alleged chili recipe:

I think Douglas Martin had a bad day and a bad editor. The stunt lede is seldom a good idea. Take out the Stroganoff on this one and you get "The world's best mom" - the stuff of hokey regional obits.

The simplest critique is whether you would ever slap a lede like this on a man's obit, and the answer is, No.

I like this take on the story, from The Atlantic, on how the controversy reveals ongoing tensions on the personal vs. the professional in obit writing and life.