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Being inclusive with style: How Mic and BuzzFeed are 'Going Rogue'

Being inclusive with style: How Mic and BuzzFeed are 'Going Rogue'

May 16, 2018 By Maxine Mulvey / mrmulvey@ucdavis.edu​ Conferences
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“The world is not one-size-fits-all; style shouldn’t be either,” said Kaitlyn Jakola, the copy chief of Mic.com.

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As the world population continues to climb, copy editors should promote representative language rather than strictly adhere to style guides. Half the globe is connected via the internet. Culture is evolving rapidly, and language must evolve with it.

What is representative language? According to the ACES 2018 conference session on “Going Rogue,” hosted by Mic.com and BuzzFeed Creative, representative language is language that puts “humanity first” and aims to be “as inclusive as possible.” Representative language contrasts with neutral language, which aims to be objective rather than show “nuance or flexibility.”

“The world is not one-size-fits-all; style shouldn’t be either,” said Kaitlyn Jakola, the copy chief of Mic.com. 

Jakola and Deputy Copy Chief Ali Killian represented Mic.com; Copy Chief Dan Toy and Copy Editor Sarah Schweppe represented BuzzFeed Creative. 

According to Killian, Mic seeks a middle ground between neutrality and bias. The publication aims to be detached rather than objective. 

“Media outlets should strive for detachment over objectivity,” Killian said. “True objectivity is impossible to achieve, [but] it is possible to detach yourself from the story.” Mic and BuzzFeed are transparent about their values and never claim to be entirely neutral on a given topic.

Going Rogue panel-Martha Rhina
Editors from Mic.com and BuzzFeed made up the "Going Rogue" panel during ACES 2018 April 26-28. (ONA USFSP/Martha Rhine​)

Killian went on to explain the role copy editors can play in ensuring that content uses people-first language:

“Copy editors are ‘details’ people,” Killian said. “Ensuring correct language [is the] heart of copy-editing, extending beyond grammar.” By avoiding unnecessary generalizations, copy editors can foster inclusivity.

For some, talk of “people-first language” is reminiscent of an irksome “PC culture,” which aims to use “politically correct” terminology, especially when discussing topics like gender, sexuality and race. Such aims are often criticized for mincing words and obsessively avoiding conflict. But Mic and BuzzFeed’s representatives are proud of their dedication to representative language. For them, it’s about “respecting sources and readers.”

People-first language applies to journalism and corporate work alike. At BuzzFeed Creative, Toy and Schweppe often collaborate with brands to create effective advertisements.Toy and Schweppe work to maximize diversity in media such as “stock photos, illustrations and custom photography.”

The speakers then offered advice on writing and editing in sensitive contexts, including gender, sexuality, race, and body positivity:

In terms of using nontraditional pronouns like singular “they,” Mic consults the GLAAD media reference guide. While some people remain uncomfortable with nontraditional pronouns, Killian emphasized that “exposure breeds understanding.” The more such words are used in media, the more people will come to accept these language changes and hopefully to respect those whose identities lie outside convention.

When speaking about members of the LGBTQ community, writers and editors should “be mindful of the market,” according to Toy. Some terms that are not socially acceptable in the United States are normal in other countries and vice versa. In all cases, we should “use language accepted by the community at hand, even if it goes against publication style,” Schweppe said.

A buzzword of late, “alt-right” is, according to the AP, “a euphemism to disguise racist aims.” Mic and BuzzFeed stress being as specific as possible: explain the term “alt-right” if you have to use it, and make sure it is being used accurately.

Mic and BuzzFeed also provided tips on editing to support body positivity and health. For instance, Mic avoids gendered language with regard to menstruation: “Not all women get periods. Not everyone who gets periods are women,” Jakola said. 

Toy also advises being mindful of terms like “plus-size,” “fat” and “curvy.” In terms of recipes and exercise regimens, BuzzFeed often includes disclaimers and safety warnings and prefers “healthier” over “healthy.”

Martha Rhines-Going Rogue
A large crowd, some sitting on the floor, gathered for "Going Rogue" during ACES 2018 conference. (ONA USFSP/Martha Rhine​)

Near the end of the session, Mic and BuzzFeed took questions. One attendee asked whether it would be appropriate to refer to Caitlyn Jenner by her dead name in stories about her Olympic win. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “dead name” refers here to a transgender person’s birth-given name — a name they do not identify with and have since changed.

“It’s an act of violence to use someone’s dead name,” Jakola said. “Plain and simple.”

“It’s historically inaccurate,” an attendee responded.

“Respecting someone’s personhood and humanity is more important than the historical record,” Jakola insisted.

As an outside perspective, copy editors’ “influence can be widespread” when it comes to using inclusive language. The language is changing surrounding sensitive topics. Copy editors have the power to lead the way. 

“These people have always existed, we just didn’t talk about them with respect … now we have new terms and they make people feel good,” Jakola said.

Mic's style guide and BuzzFeed's style guide are both freely available online.

Header image credit: ONA USFSP/Martha Rhine

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