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Another Fact That Needs To Be Right: A Person's Pronouns

"Respect" is one of our core values. We aim to treat everyone we encounter "with decency and compassion."

"Accuracy" is one of our core values. We work hard to make sure the facts we report "are both correct and in context."

When it comes to the pronoun we use to refer to someone, we need to keep both those values in mind. A pronoun is a biographical detail that has to be correct. Getting it wrong not only means we've made a mistake, it means we may have hurt the person we interviewed. That has happened.

The right pronoun is the one that person uses. (Do not say someone "prefers" a pronoun.)

This note can't cover every situation. I know some of you will ask "what about when I'm at a [insert difficult scene]?" This isn't aimed at the reporting we do outside the U.S., where other issues (including languages, obviously) need to be factored in. And I can't say we have this all figured out.

After asking a few dozen people around the newsroom about this, it became clear that there is a belief among some NPR journalists that we should include "what are your pronouns?" or "what pronouns do you use?" among the questions we ask everyone. Others feel that might be off-putting for some people and not appropriate in some situations. Everyone agrees that we don't want to single out some groups for those questions because that's "otherizing" them. All also agree that we need to use the right pronouns and that it's not difficult to explain to listeners and readers that this person "uses the pronoun he/she/they/etc." when such context is necessary. If it helps to clarify who is being referred to later in a story, use the person's name.

If you're not sure about someone's pronouns, what do you do?

My experience has been that in most cases people are OK with being asked personal questions (about their age, family, finances, health, etc.) if I've explained that I want to make sure I get those things right and talked about why sharing those details is important to telling their story.

It's also been my experience that most people aren't upset by questions we think might surprise or offend them. In this case, many will know someone who uses "they." Or they've been asked on forms about the pronouns they use. Or they will appreciate being asked and, perhaps, enjoy talking about the question you're asking. I'm old enough to remember the first few times I asked women about "Ms. or Mrs. or Miss?" I don't recall any difficult conversations about that.

The takeaway from all this: Use your judgment. A direct question may feel appropriate. The "right" answer may naturally come up in conversation. The person may make the answer (or have made it in the past) clear on their own.

But it's not their responsibility to make sure we get it right. That's on us.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.