Owner of productive womb wins Powerball Jackpot! (or how NOT to write about people based on group identities that don’t matter to the story)

PowerballWoman

The headline of this NBC story gave me hives when I read it, and not just because it was in passive voice. It seems somewhat innocuous but then you get into the story…

 

The winner of the $758 million Powerball is a medical center worker and mother of two from Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Mavis L. Wanczyk, who successfully produced two live offspring during her lifetime, won the massive fortune on Wednesday night after the numbers — 6, 7, 16, 23 and 26, with a Powerball of 4 — were drawn at 10:59 p.m.

“I had a pipe dream and my pipe dream has finally come true,” said Wanczyk, a human woman who completed two reproductively successful sexual encounters during her life.

Powerball is played in 44 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands by all people, including women with children who somehow manage to find the time to purchase tickets, what with all the childcare and nurturing they must do on a daily basis.

Wanczyk’s win is the largest on a single ticket in North American history. The odds of picking all six numbers correctly were about one in 292.2 million, even more when factoring in the odds of successfully creating life twice from one womb…

(If you don’t get the point yet, go back and read Tracy Everbach’s post on how to write about women without taking a side trip through Stereotype City.)

Obviously, the “rewrite” above is a (slight) farce, but humor often reflects unpleasant truth. In the 1990s, it somehow became a “thing” for news stories to make it known when a member of the LGBTQ community was quoted or cited, regardless of the story’s topic. In response, The Onion wrote perhaps my favorite bit of biting satire:

Area Homosexual Saves Four From Fire” presents a standard fire story with a “reminder” at every possible turn that the hero of the story was gay.

It’s easy to blow off the Powerball story as a fluff piece, but the question remains valid: Why is it that the headline focused on the fact she is a “mother-of-two?”  It could have focused on her job, her life outside of work or a dozen other facets of who she is. Instead, the headline zeroed in on her role as a mother for no real reason other than to point it out.

This is not to say that details don’t matter or that any reference to a “manhole cover” is somehow creating a gender gap that can never be healed. However, just like everything else we do in journalism, it is important to understand not just WHAT we are doing but WHY we are doing it. With that in mind, here are a few simple suggestions for dealing with group-based descriptors:

Would you use the same type of descriptor if another race/gender/group was involved? Look back at the last dozen “big lottery winner” stories and see if any one of them describe a man as a “father of two” in the headline. Chances are pretty slim you’ll find those descriptors as common as you will references to a “mother of two.” When only one group gets a descriptor, it demonstrates a sense of “difference.”

One of my favorite examples of this comes from the book “Ball Four,” where several baseball players are discussing the issue of race. One player notes that he wouldn’t mind that newspaper reports kept referring to him as “the black first baseman” if they would also refer to his teammate as “the white first baseman.”

In other words, it’s highly unlikely that you will find a lot of stories that note, “Bill Smith, a straight white man who has two children, said he is planning to run for mayor.”

Does the descriptor add something important to the story? A legendary story about this idea focused on how newspapers used race in describing suspects in crime stories. According to legend, a newspaper’s crime round up once described two suspects of a beating this way: “Police said they are looking for two black men carrying sticks. They may have discarded the sticks.”

Well, that’s a helpful bit of information for anyone hoping to call Crime Stoppers…

The point of a description is to provide readers with a chance to locate the suspect. Thus, something closer to, “Police said the suspect is a white man, 5-foot-5, 380 pounds, brown eyes, a bald head and he has a tattoo of a dragon on his right hand” is what we’re looking for.

Had the lottery story in any way explained WHY it was important that she was a mother of two, MAYBE that headline works. If everything that came out of her mouth at that press conference focused on her kids and how integral they were in her winning, MAYBE we’re not pushing this point as much, but that’s not the case here.

(Side note: I’m trying to do math in my head here, but if she’s 53, her children are likely grown, so it’s not like she’s raising two small children at home and supporting them on a meager salary at this job the writer mentions. My mom always says that I’m always going to be her child, but at a certain age, she stopped hanging my drawings on the refrigerator…)

In some stories, references to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other “group” demarcations would make sense. A line like “Smith said that, as a mother of two, she is able to get more financial assistance to attend college, thus making her transition back to school much easier” gives a reader at least a fighting chance to understand WHY the mention of motherhood matters. However, “Mother of two wins lottery” doesn’t come close.

Does the descriptor lend itself to a stereotypical connotation that likely does more harm than good? People often say dumb things that touch stereotypes about certain groups. During a 1981 playoff game, NBA commentator Rick Barry described a photo of fellow hall of famer Bill Russell, noting the wide smile on Russell’s face as a “watermelon grin.” The racial undertones left Russell stunned. Even though Barry swore he never meant for the comment to be viewed in this way, a few years later, he referred to a dunk by Michael Jordan as a “Chinese Superman” because he came in on “a slant.”

Think about how a group is traditionally viewed in a stereotypical way and then review your inclusion of descriptors to see if you are reinforcing those stereotypes. Some forethought can help you avoid gaffes like this awkward Time magazine cover:

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If you want an even more egregious example of this kind of stereotyping, consider the lead from this New York Times obituary:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, 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.

Oh… and by the way… Yvonne Brill was worked at NASA and revolutionized the country’s position in outer space, which is something we find out about in the second paragraph:

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 keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

But, hey, how about that beef stew?

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