Why the words we choose matter

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Hello. A lot has been written in the last 10 days about Dr. Katie Bouman. You may have seen some mention of her name, and if you did not, you almost certainly heard about an achievement she helped make possible — the first image of a black hole.

The remarkability of this achievement should be clearly understood. Until now, black holes have been theoretical. They were postulated by two 18th-century scholars and first mathematically explained by a German physicist in the early 20th century — working to prove Albert Einstein’s equations for general relativity. You cannot directly observe a black hole, and scientists could only speculate that gravitational disruptions observed by telescopes were the result of matter interacting with black holes.

In essence, a black hole is formed when a dense neutron star collapses in on itself and creates a gravity well so strong that not even light can escape it.

By all reports, Dr. Bouman became fascinated with black holes as a teenager. Three years ago, while a grad student at MIT, she and a team began trying to develop an algorithm to image the interstellar phenomenon by comparing readings from eight powerful telescopes from all over the world.

I don’t understand much more than that, except that proving the existence of black holes proves so many other physics theorems, including general relativity, that its impact on scientific thought is not yet quantifiable.

Here’s where this gets to journalists. Obviously a discovery of this magnitude deservedly gets media coverage. But some, I’m hoping inadvertent, phrasing of this momentous achievement reveals how far we still need to come on a social level. Let’s take the headline from the website Refinery29 : “The first image of a black hole was taken by an incredible 29-year-old female scientist.”

Using “female” in this headline makes women in science seem like an oddity. In fact, according to Scientific American, 49% of all doctorates awarded in America in 2010 went to women — 41% in science and engineering fields.

And I am not just calling out Refinery29 — I saw this several places. Like it was weird for news outlets to be reporting on the groundbreaking work of a scientist who lacks a Y chromosome. It’s troubling even in the best of times — and let’s face it, it’s not the best of times for journalism.

Language like this used by news reporters, editors and producers reduces the work of certain scientists and perpetuates an extremely damaging stereotype that the work of women is somehow lesser and when they achieve or create something great, it’s particularly remarkable for a woman to have done so. Words matter. We journalists have to make sure that our own bias or lack of awareness doesn’t infect an entire community or generation and convince some that woman are only rarely capable of important work.

If you think Executive Editor Michael Ellis Langley is making too big a deal of this, feel free to write him at mlangley@tracypress.com or call 830-4231 so he can tell you how amazing your mother, sister and spouse are.

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