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Thursday, July 31, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 2/16/2014

COMMENTARY

Reader raises question about title of U.S. lawmaker

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Jack Lessenberry Jack Lessenberry
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Toledoan (and transplanted Australian) Lindsay Smith had an interesting question about Marcy Kaptur’s title.

The Blade’s style is that all members of the U.S. House of Representatives are referred to as “congressman” regardless of their sex. Many years ago, the late Paul Block, Jr., then the publisher, told me that this was not an attempt to demean women; far from it.

Instead, The Blade views “congressman” as a generic title. Still, Mr. Smith notes, “I realize that ‘congresswoman’ is rather a long word for headline writers, but ‘congressman’ does jar, especially when the photo of Miss Kaptur appears quite close to the [headline],” which, in this case, said, “Congressman encourages democracy.”

So what does your ombudsman think?

Before answering, I thought I should try to find out how female members of the House of Representatives themselves prefer to be identified. Turns out the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs did a survey last year.

The survey found that of 78 women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, 66, including Miss Kaptur, identified themselves as “congresswoman” on their official Web site.

Six refer to themselves as “representative” and only three — two from Tennessee and one from Wyoming — use “congressman.”

Miss Kaptur, who was first elected in 1982, is now the senior female member of the House.

Your ombudsman thinks that generally people should determine what they want to be called — as long as the usage makes sense and is consistent. However, things aren’t that clear-cut.

According to the Minnesota survey, six of the eight Republican women in the House who head committees maintain the traditional title of “chairman.” Only two use “chairwoman.”

Why? Well, consider my title, for example. I know a number of women who serve as ombudsman for various institutions. None calls herself an “ombudswoman.” That may be because ombudsman is a gender-neutral Swedish word. In German too, “man” means one.

However, not in English.

Your ombudsman doesn’t have any power to change style rules at The Blade. If I did, I would probably use the neutral “representative” whenever possible. Lindsay Smith notes that countries such as Australia and Great Britain don’t have this problem — both sexes are called “members of Parliament.”

But America is different. If the editors want my advice, I think we are at the point where we should begin using “congresswoman,” in large part because there are now a lot more women in the Senate and House than there used to be. When there were only a handful of women in Washington, the title “congresswoman” might have sounded condescending.

Even when Miss Kaptur was first elected, there were only 24 women in the House and Senate combined. Now, however, there are 98 — one of whom has been speaker of the House.

In three decades, congressional women have quadrupled their numbers. It may be time to reconsider how we refer to them.

■ Toledo reader Alan Buck wanted to know what the real story is about deadlines. “What is the deadline for news articles from Blade reporters during the week?

Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor, said that, generally speaking, reporters have to turn in their stories to their editors by 9:30 p.m. the night before the printed paper appears on your porch.

However, “for news breaking at night, late meetings, or game coverage they can go as late as 10:30,” with the editors’ permission.

On election nights or in cases of huge breaking news, this can sometimes be stretched even longer. “News comes first, and we want to get the latest news in our morning edition, so we’ve been known to take stories up to and even past deadline,” Mr. Murray said.

The reason for “deadlines,” of course, is that it takes a certain amount of time to assemble, print, and fold papers, then load them on trucks and take them to the folks who deliver them.

In some ways, the process of producing a newspaper resembles a carefully choreographed dance — what now-retired editor Tom Walton used to call “the daily miracle.”

Of course, every page can’t be written at the last minute, and some pages and sections have deadlines hours earlier.

■ A nice lady whose name I didn’t get called and asked, “Why don’t we build snow fences anymore?” Well, the short answer is that many people still do, especially ranchers. They can be invaluable for containing snow, and you can read lots more about the history of snow fences and how they work by doing an Internet search.

However, the longer answer is that your ombudsman is not and cannot be a one-man research department, except where issues of fairness in The Blade are concerned.

If you think you know something that would be an interesting or important story, I suggest calling Kim Bates, the city editor, at 419-724-6050, or better yet, email her at: kbates@theblade.com.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/​o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an e-mail address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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