PC Without Politics

Mar 29, 2018

Obituaries are news stories, subject to the same standards of accuracy, objectivity and truth as crime reports, sports scores, presidential pronouncements and governmental decrees.

Words are a critical element of journalistic tradecraft, and news journalists are paid to use language with proven precision. At times, that means avoiding euphemisms that soften harsh facts. People don’t “pass away,” for instance; they die.

Writers of news obituaries not only are allowed—but often are required—to speak ill of the dead, specifically, when bad things newsworthy took place during the life being recounted.

Many of the best obituaries, like well-preached eulogies, convey the spirit of their subjects, but are careful not to stray far from the facts. They are, in short, celebrations of real life as much as commemorations of death.

All of these elements were in play the other day when the renowned Cambridge University physicist Stephen Hawking died.

The Guardian described him as “the brightest star in the firmament of science, whose insights shaped modern cosmology and inspired global audiences in the millions.”

The New York Times said Hawking had “roamed the cosmos” while “pondering the nature of gravity and the origin of the universe and becoming an emblem of human determination and curiosity.”

“There aren’t very many scientists who have achieved rock star status,” NPR’s Joe Palca opined. “Albert Einstein, of course. But after that? Well, Stephen Hawking was definitely a contender.”

Singing Hawking’s well-earned praises was the easier part of this assignment. What proved more difficult for some was explaining the obvious: Why was he always pictured in a wheelchair? Why, when he spoke, did the words come from a machine?

Reuters offered this: “Ravaged by the wasting motor neuron disease he developed at 21, Hawking was confined to a wheelchair for most of his life.”

The Los Angeles Times described him as “the British physicist whose body was chained to a wheelchair ... but whose mind soared to the boundaries of the universe and beyond.”

Nicolas Steenhout, who consults on Internet issues for people with disabilities and spends time in a wheelchair himself, couldn’t believe a few of those words.

“I would like to see proof of that. I would like to see a photo of Stephen Hawking being chained to a chair,” Steenhout posted to blogger Erik Wemple of The Washington Post.

“Each time I am told I am wheelchair bound, the implied message I get is, ‘You’re in a wheelchair. You’re limited.’ ” Steenhout wrote. “Yeah, I’m in a wheelchair. It gives me wings!”

The facts that explain Hawking’s condition were noted in less provocative words in most of the obituaries, including those from Reuters and The Los Angeles Times.

The NPR report did so, as well—but in more easily understandable language.

Hawking suffered, it explained, from “a debilitating neurological disease that made it impossible for him to move his limbs or speak, but that never kept him from thinking or communicating his big ideas to the world.”

“Hawking’s disease left him virtually paralyzed,” Palca told listeners. “It took an enormous effort for Hawking to make the tiny movements that allowed him to communicate using a computer interface.”

Obituaries and other news stories most often are written in a hurry. Reporters on deadline don’t always have time to search or research for the exact words, especially when complex topics like Hawking’s condition are involved.

So we fall back on words or phrases that others have used before, not taking into account whether they are the most accurate—or even were accurate in the first place. We settle for clichés.

Guidelines on best practices (we call them stylebooks) try to identify the potential pitfalls. The Associated Press manual, for instance, gives this advice on word usage:

People use wheelchairs for independent mobility. Do not use “confined to a wheelchair,” or “wheelchair-bound.” If a wheelchair is needed, say why.

Also, for example:

The word “deaf” describes a person with total hearing loss. For others, use “partial hearing loss” or “partially deaf.” Avoid using “deaf-mute.” Do not use “deaf and dumb.”

Hearing loss, in any case, isn’t connected to intellectual ability.

I. King Jordan, the first deaf president (1988-2006) of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., offered this guidance:

Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, except hear.

For some, AP’s guidance and the objections raised by Jordan and Steenhout are textbook prescriptions for what we have come to call political correctness.

Being “PC” is the phrase, usually used pejoratively, to describe “avoiding language or behavior that can be seen as excluding, marginalizing, or insulting groups of people considered disadvantaged or discriminated against,” or so says Wikipedia.

The words reflect public policy. Federal law prohibits discrimination based on physical or mental disability, along with age, color, race, religion, sex, veteran status and national origin.

Political correctness is mixture of politics, policy and public discourse, and being politically incorrect, so to speak, on disability and other such matters can have serious consequences.

James G. Watt, Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration, lost his job after he offered what he fashioned as a “light-hearted” description of the diversity on an advisory commission on coal.

“We have every kind of mixture you can have,” Watt told a group of lobbyists. “I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.”

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential contests, Donald J. Trump criticized a reporter whose article cast doubt on Trump’s claim that “thousands and thousands of people” in New Jersey cheered as the World Trade Center came down on Sept. 11, 2001.

“You gotta see this guy,” he told a rally crowd, and then contorted his arms and hands to mock the reporter, whose hands are usually positioned in front of his chest because he has a congenital disorder that can cause deformity and rigidity of joints.

More recently, 83 percent of the respondents in a Bloomberg Politics poll nine months later said that event bothered them more than Trump’s “feud with a Gold Star family, his praise for Russian Vladimir Putin or lawsuits against Trump University.”

Although the words of others can be misleading or out of place in some news stories, they can be helpful in others.

Subjective opinions and even controversial language presented as unattributed fact can come across as an author’s bias, and often are. When those words come from knowledgeable sources, however, they add authenticity and authority.

“It’s tempting to say that Hawking achieved his fame in spite of his physical challenges,” NPR’s Palca reported, for instance. “But in a way, Hawking’s physical challenges may have contributed to his mental prowess.”

Oh, really? Says who?

Kip Thorne, whom Palca identified as a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the California Institute of Technology who had collaborated with Hawking on occasion, was the source of that opinion.

“It was because of his handicap that he developed new ways of thinking, new ways of wrapping his brain around things that enabled him to out-think anybody else in the field,” Thorne told the NPR audience.

Palca’s obituary did contain one of those phrases that Steenhout so despised, but not from Palca’s mouth. It came at the end, and seemed to evoke images some might say were worth a thousand words, and then some.

Palca: Throughout his life, Hawking was up for a challenge. For example, in 2007, he accepted an offer from Zero G Corporation to experience weightlessness.

The company uses a plane that climbs and then dives in such a way that for 25 seconds at a time, everyone inside the plane is weightless. Hawking spoke at a news conference before his flight:

Hawking: I have been wheelchair-bound for almost four decades, and the chance to float in zero-G will be wonderful.”

Oh, really?

Check it out.

Wasn’t that PC? Wasn’t that, "Pretty Cool”?