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From 'Ombudsman' To 'Public Editor'; Same Role, New Gender-Neutral Title

Holly Krake

An announcement from NPR today is sure to make at least a couple of listeners and readers happy: NPR has changed the official title of my job to "Public Editor," from "Ombudsman."

The new title gets at the core of the role: representing the public to NPR's newsroom. It's also gender neutral (I am the second woman to hold this position). NPR is one of the few remaining major U.S. newsrooms to employ someone in the role; before they eliminated their posts, most other newsrooms had already switched over to the public editor title.

Gender-neutral language is a hot-button issue for some listeners. I am regularly contacted by one listener whenever she hears " manpower" or " layman" or " mankind," or male-only pronouns when referring to the office of president.

Another listener objects when she hears specific job titles that are not gender neutral: "fireman" instead of "firefighter," "chairman" instead of "chairperson."

"You guys" is a particular trigger for some listeners, and it is very commonly heard on NPR.

There's no official guidance from NPR's standards and practices office about using gender-neutral language. Mark Memmott, the editor overseeing standards and practices, said the unofficial guidance about male-oriented language is "try not to do it. People across the newsroom understand we should strive for that. But it's hard to break old habits."

NPR actually does pretty well when it comes to using "firefighter" and "police officer" instead of their gender-specific counterparts. A search of all NPR newsmagazine and digital uses over the course of a year (from Jan. 10, 2018, to Jan. 10, 2019) shows hosts, reporters and guests referred to "firefighter" 95 percent of the time and "police officer" 75 percent of the time.

"Layman" showed up inappropriately just a dozen or so times, to choose another example.

But other words seem to still stick. "Businessman/men" turned up 342 times, "businesswoman/women" 21 times and "businessperson" just 7 times. "Chairman/men" showed up 2,077 times, "chairwoman/women" 46 times and "chairperson" 27 times.

These are searches for the words themselves, not specific people and their titles. When referring to a specific person, a title such as "chairman" might at times be appropriate, if it is what they themselves use. And NPR can't control what guests say, of course.

But the figures still indicate that more conscious attention is needed to choosing gender-neutral terms whenever possible. The change in the title of this office is a welcome step in that direction.

Caroline Kelly contributed to this report.

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Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.