Notes on the gender debate in Journalism Research

by Gabriele Hooffacker

Journalistic language should be as precise as possible. Its purpose is communication. Yet journalistic language can also encourage one-sided views. It makes a difference whether a news report speaks of »freedom fighters« or »rebels,« a »government« or a »regime,« »migrants« or »refugees.« Those who have good journalistic training or relevant practical experience increasingly know this and take it into account.

In contrast to this, there are differing language traditions in North and South, East and West, in different social groups, in the former Federal Republic and the GDR. Barely anyone today remembers that the use of the term »FRG« by someone in Bavaria in the 1970s would have had them suspected of being a communist. A woman who gained engineering qualifications in the DDR would have proudly referred to herself as an »Ingenieur« [masculine form], seeing it as a sign of equal rights. On the other hand, people under 40 today find it impossible to understand why some people refuse to stop using the traditional names for marshmallow sweets or schnitzel with pepper sauce [Negerkuss/Zigeunerschnitzel, now considered racist terms].

For centuries, people spoke of »Bürger« [citizens, masculine form]. This was correct, as women did not have the vote for a long time. The formulation »Bürgerinnen und Bürgern« implements the societal change in language form. Yet few demands split society like that for equal linguistic treatment of men and women in society – and this split is by no means merely between »right« and »left,« however it is instrumentalized by circles with relevant interests.

Current language use does not make visible those who switch from one identity to another, or who cannot be classified in a clear identity of »man« or »woman.« Society and legislators are still learning here, and there is some catching up to be done.

Journalistic media helps society to communicate about itself. In this process, the audience must accept that there are some groups in society whose beliefs and ways of life are not shared by others. The limits of this are defined in law. As society changes, so do they. Academic media primarily serve to enable discussion within the academic community (and yes, there is passionate debate here, too, including on the gender issue). Dedicated researchers use new topics and active discussion with society to counteract the danger of academic discourse becoming too far removed from reality. These processes take time.

In its role as an intermediary between practical journalism and the science of journalism, known as journalism studies, Journalistik positions itself on the side of enlightenment, pluralism of society, and inclusion. Efforts at inclusive, gender-sensitive language are seen in many German-language media – at every level. This is not the case elsewhere. Academia accompanies these processes in society, without being able to encourage or stop them. Yet academia can provide findings and enable answers and orientation.

For me, working towards gender-sensitive language that is as non-discriminatory as possible is an obvious step. I would see it as a mistake to marginalize all those who do not yet, or are hesitant to, implement the societal change in language. That is why I welcome the recommendation of gender-specific language in Journalism Research, with the precise implementation – be it neutral formulations, asterisks, colons, or other methods – left to the author.

Translation: Sophie Costella

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Gabriele Hooffacker: Notes on the gender debate in Journalism Research. . In: Journalistik, Vol. 3 (1), 2020, pp. 68-69



First published online

June 2020