A judge, a professor and a “wiry marathon runner” want your vote: 3 tips for avoiding stereotyping descriptors in your writing

Election Day is here and I need to pick several folks for state and local elections. Knowing almost nothing about our Supreme Court nominees here in Wisconsin, I did a little digging around for some information on who is running and what they represent.

In voting for a state Supreme Court election, which of the following items do you think voters would most care about learning first?

  1. Previous experience as an assistant attorney general.
  2. A history of work with crime victims, including a stint as the executive director of a statewide victim’s advocacy office
  3. Being an awesome high school athlete 38 years ago

If you picked “3,” you’re thinking like the Associated Press was when publishing profiles of the candidates for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. Here is the opening paragraph of candidate Jill Karofsky’s portion of the “get to know the candidates” bio:

(Jill) Karofsky is a wiry marathon runner who has completed two Iron Man competitions. She also won the state doubles tennis championship in 1982 for Middleton High School.

Compare this to how Justice Dan Kelly is described off the top:

Then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, appointed (Daniel) Kelly to the Supreme Court in 2016 to replace the retiring David Prosser. An attorney by trade, he represented Republican lawmakers in a federal trial over whether they illegally gerrymandered Wisconsin’s legislative district boundaries in 2011. He’s also a member of The Federalist Society, a conservative organization that advocates for a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

If you think this could be a case of the incumbent getting a bit more focus on the job, consider the opening of the third candidate’s bio. Meet Ed Fallone:

(Ed) Fallone has taught law at Marquette University for 27 years. His mother was raised in Mexico and he has served on the boards of Voces de la Frontera Accion, the lobbying arm of immigrant advocacy group Voces de la Frontera, and Centro Legal, a Milwaukee nonprofit that provides low-cost legal services.

I’m not a feminist scholar by trade, but if you can’t see an imbalance here in how the candidates are being introduced, you’re not paying attention. If I had to summarize them by how they were portrayed in those first paragraphs it would be like this:

  • Dan Kelly: Conservative jurist and incumbent Supreme Court Justice.
  • Ed Fallone: Veteran law professor with an interest in immigrant advocacy.
  • Jill Karofsky: Don’t let that flowing robe fool you! She’s athletic as hell under there!

Also, I went through all of the other two candidates’ biographies and I can’t find a single use of a physical descriptor in there, except in Karofsky’s opening paragraph and the use of “wiry:”

I’m not sure why it matters that she’s “wiry” or what that has to do with her jurisprudence, but apparently the writer thought it somehow mattered. I’ve heard the argument that descriptions often “humanize” people in short profiles, but consider this information instead:

Judge Karofsky received the WI Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s “Voices of Courage Award,” was named the WI Victim/Witness Professional Association’s “Professional of the Year,” and earned a “Significant Impact” Award from a local organization dedicated to ending domestic violence. She currently serves on the Wisconsin Judicial Education Committee and chairs the Violence Against Women STOP Grant committee. She previously co-chaired the Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Response Team, and served on the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse, the WI Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board, the Wisconsin Crime Victims Council, and the Dane County Big Brothers/Big Sisters Board of Directors.

I doubt that the writer had chosen this route of description on purpose, but it does paint a series of incongruent pictures in which gender appears to be the distinguishing element. As always, the point of this blog is not to beat up on journalists, but rather to teach you how to avoid these problems in the first place. Here are some helpful thoughts on potentially problematic descriptors:

Would you use the same type of descriptor if another race/gender/group was involved? One of my favorite books, “Ball Four,” talked about the aspect of race during a time in which these things were not as openly discussed across a large spectrum of people. In one conversation, one of author Jim Bouton’s teammates noted he wouldn’t mind that newspapers referred to him as the team’s black first baseman if they would only refer to his replacement as the team’s white first baseman.

Instead, it was a first baseman and a black first baseman, thus indicating one was “normal” and the other was an oddity.

When considering descriptors, ask yourself if you would use descriptive elements like this on all people involved in the story. For example, based on this photo, a writer might refer to Fallone as “diminutive” if the writer felt a physical description were warranted in discussing Supreme Court candidates. (I got nothing to describe Kelly, physically, despite my best efforts. I was stuck between “broad-chested” and “square-headed,” neither of which worked, but you get the point.)

Think about how an approach would work across gender, racial, ethnic or other lines before deciding to make one person the standard for “normal” and the others anomalies.

Does the descriptor add something important to the story? In some cases, personal differences can add value to a story. For example, you can’t tell the story of Thurgood Marshall’s life without noting things like how he was the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. His position as a pioneer and a ground-breaking figure adds value to the story. However, merely tossing in a descriptor like, “Jim Jones, a black man, said he thinks the Milwaukee Brewers will win the World Series this year,” doesn’t add value and just engages in “othering.”

In the case of the “wiry marathon runner” and high school tennis champion who is running for the state’s Supreme Court, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out what value describing her athletic achievements have here, particularly right up top. If there was some sort of “American Ninja Warrior” competition required as part of the election, this might make sense. However, since it’s not, I’m probably going to want to know more about her brains than her brawn.

Does the descriptor lend itself to a stereotypical connotation that likely does more harm than good? When you write about someone in a way in which a descriptor could lend itself to a stereotype, you have to balance the importance of the descriptor against the value the descriptor brings to the story.

When Georgetown coach John Thompson won the 1984 NCAA championship, reporters asked him about becoming the first black coach to win the title. Thompson replied that if the indication was that he was the first person of color to have the acumen to do it, he found that insulting. He noted that many other people of color, years earlier, had just as good of a set of coaching skills as he did, but were never afforded the opportunity to coach, due to the racism of the time.

A study I did years ago with a master’s student of mine looked at how college quarterbacks were described in their draft previews and we found some clear and stereotypical disparities. White quarterbacks received high marks for intelligence, leadership and other similar “mental” elements of the game. Black quarterbacks received high marks for physical or “natural gifts” while receiving negative comments on their intellect. In doing this, we argued, the writers were reinforcing racial stereotypes like these:

This is not to say you can never use a descriptor, for fear of stereotyping someone. However, what it is saying is to make sure that you think before you do it and weigh the “cost vs. benefit” of that descriptor in your work.



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