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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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The Globe and Mail Style Book used to specify that Maureen McTeer, the wife of then opposition leader Joe Clark, should be referred to as Miss McTeer on second reference. (Kristine Racicot/The Globe and Mail)
The Globe and Mail Style Book used to specify that Maureen McTeer, the wife of then opposition leader Joe Clark, should be referred to as Miss McTeer on second reference. (Kristine Racicot/The Globe and Mail)

Public editor: On ‘girl,’ ‘elderly’ and The Globe’s early Ms.-conceptions Add to ...

Journalism, especially in print, has had an honoured position for centuries. Writing about the elite business and political leaders, often with great influence and impact on society, gave people in the news business their own sense of superiority. In the late 18th century, it was said that after the three official “estates” in the British Parliament (clergy, lords and Commons), the news media were “the fourth estate.”

But in recent years, online media, social media and more open debates have made journalism more democratic and more accountable. That old superiority has been shaken and has made the media more attuned to the readers and less likely to try to rule from on high.

Today’s media, including The Globe and Mail, want to have a conversation with readers. We reach out for their views on Facebook and other online venues, and pay attention to what they want to know. The Globe, for example, provides a “report an error” link at the top of every story encouraging readers to point out problems quickly, before they’re repeated in print.

But I see my job as Public Editor as more than just correcting errors. A large part of it is listening to what readers think is wrong or unfair and being an advocate for those who want the coverage to be better.

Journalists must be unafraid to hold leaders to account, but they also represent the public, so they should use language and descriptions respectfully.

This week, several readers wrote to complain about a casual comment in a column about living alone that said the only people who don’t yearn for long-term intimate connections are “in some way autistic, or asexual.” It was not meant to be hurtful, but writers sometimes forget they can be.

Earlier this month, a photo cutline called a 23-year-old Indian rape victim a girl. Women are not girls in their late teens and beyond. The Globe was called out on Twitter over that mistake.

On the other side of the age issue, I have complained before about stories that contrast “young professionals” and “aging baby boomers” especially in stories about the working world or real estate. Can baby boomers not be professionals? Aren’t the young also aging?

And then there is the word “elderly.” A couple who were killed earlier this month – she was 66 and he was 71 – were described as elderly by another news organization. A Globe and Mail story described another woman, age 68, as elderly. The term suggests someone very old and frail and can be offensive to people in their 60s and 70s. Would anyone call Hillary Clinton or Judi Dench elderly?

A better term would be seniors or, if accurate, retirees.

Still, there have been many great advances in being more respectful and democratic, and there were days when it was much worse. Funnily enough, a reader recently raised a question of punctuation that exposed a very old example.

Asked why The Globe and Mail uses Ms. with a period, when it is not a contraction, Warren Clements, the former editor of the paper’s internal Style Book, said: “We wrestled with that question at the start, and reached the conclusion that Ms. is indeed a contraction – an omnibus contraction of Missus and Miss. A side benefit of using the period is that it didn’t look odd in sentences that included ‘Mr.,’ ‘Dr.,’ etc.”

But the question was also a reminder of the great reluctance on the part of The Globe to employ Ms. as a title in the 1970s, when it was new, even though it was being used by a number of prominent women. It’s embarrassing today to read this from the 1976 Style Book: “The use of Ms. will continue to be barred except in stories about the use of this form of address.”

It specified that Maureen McTeer, the wife of then opposition leader Joe Clark, should be referred to as Miss McTeer on second reference – even though Maureen McTeer, like many other women at the time, called herself Ms.

It was at that point, or a little after, that I and many other women and men in the newsroom signed a petition asking the senior editors to allow Ms. – not just because it was clearly being used, but because people deserved to be called what they wanted to be. To refuse was more than failing to see that society was changing; it was paternalistic for a newspaper to decide what a woman should be called.

Soon after that, the newspaper started informally allowing Ms. for any woman who preferred it. It wasn’t until 1990 (when Mr. Clements started working on the Style Book) that it became the default honorific in the paper for all women.

As Mr. Clements put it: “Ah, the slow march of history.”

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Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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