Gender-sensitive language in Journalism Research – recommendation or binding regulation?

by Horst Pöttker

Our discussion revolves around two questions: suitable means for enacting a linguistic change that overcomes paternalistic writing traditions; and the level of obligation with which we make rules that (are intended to) lead to this linguistic change compulsory for authors in our journal.

In order to answer the first question, it is crucial to know how language as a system of symbols is understood. In my understanding, it serves primarily to enable communication between subjects, which may necessarily differ in gender, age, origin, religion, profession, education, political views and many other characteristics. This function calls for the language used by arts and social sciences, which have a particular interest in comprehension, to be as comprehensible as possible.

Comprehensibility depends on text qualities such as simple sentence construction and vocabulary, a clear structure, concise expression, and presentiveness.[1] Minimum requirements of comprehensible language use include grammatical accuracy, the use of common symbols, and – in written texts – ease of reading.

As well as communication, however, language also has other, potentially problematic functions. The question of gender sensitivity directs attention to its problematic function: representing and legitimizing conditions of social inequality between the traditionally privileged male and the traditionally disadvantaged female gender (paternalism).

I consider the goal of helping to overcome the traditional power imbalance between the genders through a change in language use important. But the interest in communication must not be neglected. Here, too, a balance between obstinacy and understanding of other people must be attempted[2] – in this case between the interest of emancipation and the function of communication.

The latter suggests that forms that do not correspond to the elementary features of comprehensibility – grammatical accuracy, common usage, and ease of reading – should be avoided. Although Duden now permits the use of an asterisk to denote persons of all genders, it is – like the gender gap and the intermediate ›I‹ – difficult to read and not in common use in journalistic practice. Furthermore, these forms emphasize a particular interest in emancipation, which in my view should not be allowed to crowd out the practical (empirical) interest in communication with journalistic practice, particularly in journalism studies as an academic discipline that supports journalism as a profession.

At the same time, however, I do not believe that a one-off indication of the generic masculine is sufficient for the task of emancipation, even in view of creating a balance with the function of communication. This justifies, for example, the general use of male pronouns (»jeder,« »einer«) that are longer than the female equivalents and thus cannot be explained by the comprehensibility features of simplicity and conciseness.

I therefore advise the following

  • Where corresponding pronouns stand alone, alternating with the shorter feminine form (»jede,« »eine«), perhaps even when male persons are meant;
  • Where possible and useful, using neutral forms (»journalism« instead of »journalists«) or
  • Referring to persons of both genders (»Journalistinnen und Journalisten,« »eine Journalistin oder ein Journalist«). (However, as the latter comes at the cost of conciseness, conscious use is needed, and perhaps occasional omission when the subjects involved in journalism are meant);
  • I also see naming the opposite gender in each case in brackets, i.e. »Journalist(inn)en, jede(r), eine(r)« as useful, if not easy to read, since brackets are an acceptable short form for denoting variants of meaning of equal significance: »Journalism should (be able to) be practiced as independently as possible.«

My response to the second question is also connected to the idea of balancing obstinacy and understanding of others. There are arguments and concepts that I do not share, yet do not find unreasonable. For example, I do not find the use of the gender asterisk, the gender gap or the intermediate »I« unreasonable, as they can be justified with the task of emancipation. Likewise retention of the generic masculine, which can be justified to some extent with the quality of comprehensibility, which is crucial to public language use.

John Rawls put the background to my opinion into words:[3] Rationality does not have to lead to a consensus on content. We should accept that different rational conceptions (can) exist alongside one another and – due to their rationality – respect one another despite this. Rawls‹ theory persuasively explains the idea of integrative pluralism, which is becoming more important as the complexity, globalization, and coarsening of public life increases. This idea of pluralism has established itself in the program of Journalism Research.[4]

For the reasons I have explained, I am against creating a binding rule on the use of gender-sensitive language in Journalism Research. The discussion between the publishers documented here can give authors sufficient inspiration and freedom to choose their own path in this question.

Translation: Sophie Costella


1 Cf. Langer, Inghard; Schulz von Thun, Friedemann & Tausch, Reinhard (201911): Sich verständlich ausdrücken. Munich/Basel: Ernst Reinhardt Verlag (first edition 1974).

2 Cf. Pöttker, Horst (2004): Maßstab: Balance von Eigensinn und Fremdverstehen. In: Imhof, Kurt; Blum, Roger; Bonfadelli, Heinz & Jarren, Otfried (Eds.): Mediengesellschaft. Strukturen, Merkmale, Entwicklungsdynamiken. Wiesbaden, p. 347-362.

3 Cf. Rawls, John (2003): Politischer Liberalismus. Translated by Wilfried Hinsch. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp (English: Political Liberalism, 1993/5).

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Horst Pöttker: Gender-sensitive language in Journalism Research – recommendation or binding regulation?. . In: Journalistik, Vol. 3 (1), 2020, pp. 65-67



First published online

June 2020