Whose line is it?

Whose line is it?

August 6th, 2010  |  Published in Reporting Across Boundaries  |  5 Comments

Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to a number of reporters about reporting outside of their neighborhoods or experience.  One common theme that I’ve heard is the importance of using people’s own language to describe places and institutions in their communities.  Patrick Barry, a senior scribe working with LISC/Chicago, said journalists documenting community development projects had to rethink their use of language when reporting on the low-to-middle-income communities that were the focus of the organization’s New Communities Program.  Even if a reporter’s impression of a neighborhood was that it was a “bombed out ghetto,” Barry said, they needed to be aware that neighborhood residents didn’t use that language to describe their neighborhood and didn’t necessarily think of their community with such an exclusively negative framing.  “We have learned a lot from neighborhood people about how to talk about places,” Barry said.

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a story about New Orleans rappers Big Freedia and Katey Red.  The print version of the story about Freedia ran under the clever headline like “Neither Straight Nor Out of Compton” (I can’t find my copy of the magazine to confirm the exact title).   However, the web version uses the (apparently) search-engine-optimized title “Sissy Bounce, New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap” in the title of the web page (the text that shows at the top of one’s browser window) and “New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap” on the page itself.  These different versions of the title reflect, perhaps, reflect the contentious use of the term “sissy bounce” to describe the music of Big Freedia and other gay, transgender, lesbian or bisexual rappers who perform New Orleans’ signature hip-hop style of “bounce.”

Jonathan Dee, the story’s author describes bounce like this:

Bounce itself has been around for about 20 years. Like most hip-hop varietals, it’s rap delivered over a sampled dance beat, but it has a few characteristics that give it a distinctively regional sound: it’s strictly party music, its beat is relentlessly fast and its rap quotient tends much less toward introspection or pure braggadocio than toward a call-and-response relationship with its audience, a dynamic borrowed in equal measure from Mardi Gras Indian chants and from the dawn of hip-hop itself. Many, if not most, bounce records announce their allegiance by sampling from one of just two sources: either Derek B.’s “Rock the Beat” or an infectious hook known as the “Triggaman,” from a 1986 Showboys record called “Drag Rap.” (That’s “drag” not as in cross-dressing but as in the theme to the old TV show “Dragnet.”)

Katey Red is quick to point out that LGBT artists in New Orleans are part of the larger bounce music culture, not a separate genre.  “Ain’t no such thing as ‘sissy bounce,’ ” she said. “It’s bounce music. It’s just sissies that are doing it.”  In this video interview from Fader Magazine, Freedia expresses a similar sentiment:

Bounce music generally is just bounce music in New Orleans and you may have a gay rapper that does bounce music and you have straight rappers as well.  So I just really want to clarify that bounce music is not sissy bounce it’s bounce generally and you have some sissies that represent bounce music, you know, like myself, Sissy Nobby, Katey Red .  You know, there’s a few more.  It’s not called sissy bounce at home, it’s called bounce music.

The story does explain that most artists object to the phrase.  “They have no desire to be typed within, or set apart from, bounce culture; and indeed, within New Orleans itself, they mostly are not,” Dee wrote.  And it also explains the origin of the label “sissy bounce,” New Orleans music writer Alison Fensterstock.  Still, the nuanced perspective of how the artists view gender and sexuality as part of their identities and the identity of their musical community falls under a web page title that acknowledges “their bookings elsewhere in the country are founded increasingly on the novelty of their sexual identities.”  Even if the artists eschew the term “sissy bounce,” the Times seems aware that people may search for information about this music using this term, and they want to make sure that people can find the article.

This forefronts a challenge for journalists when choosing words in their stories – should one use the language of those most involved in or affected by a story or terminology that may be more widely used?  Does using the popular language for something legitimize language that doesn’t accurately frame an idea?    The best approach is probably the one Dee took in the story about New Orleans rap, to explain disputed language, its origins and how it reflects the nuance of the subject.  This is possible, and even adds depth to a longer article, but can a writer do the same thing in a daily news article?

Being aware of and taking the time to explain complicated stories behind language are important obligations for journalists that will only become more difficult in the age of online news.  As more and more people seek news and information on the web and find it through search rather than visiting the news organization’s web site directly, there is greater pressure for journalists to include widely-used language in stories to make the stories discoverable.  One solution may be to link phrases in the story to pages that describe the origin of the phrases.  The New York Times website already allows users to access definitions of words in articles by clicking on the word.  Linking such functionality to user-contributed content, like urban dictionary, may give added insight into the origin of language used in stories, though it could make it more convoluted.

Photo by Incase via Flickr. It’s captioned as a photo of Big Freedia, but the performer more closely resembles Katey Red.