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Oppenheim: The Hurt I Caused

Denis Finley, editor of the Free Press, got into dicey territory when he responded on Twitter to Vermont’s plan to offer a third gender identity option on driver’s licenses.

He opined that move would - his words - “make us one step closer to the apocalypse”. Then he made things worse with more tweets and ultimately got canned.

My take on this story is not only what Denis Finley did, but also about something I did – because in a different way, I made what I see as a significant error.

There’s someone I know who is transitioning from male to female. She isn’t fully there yet, but in terms of pronouns, she definitely wants to be referred to as “she” and “her”. But on maybe five or six occasions, I referred to her as “he” and “him” and used other male references – because, truthfully, in my mind I was perceiving her as a gay male, not a female.

So I approached her and made a formal apology.

At first, she said: “It’s ok, you’re not the only one who does that.” But on second thought she said: “No, I guess it’s not o.k.” And on her face, I saw a pained expression reflecting what it must feel like when someone refers to her as something she is not.

I felt pretty bad, but I’ve been trying to take something away from the experience, which gets me back to Denis Finley. His downfall was partly due to this weird thing in journalism these days where reporters and editors are expected to engage with audiences on social media – a trend that can create a blur between reporting and opinion. And I should add that Finley wasn’t a columnist, he was the paper’s editor and should have known better about maintaining objectivity.

But this episode would be mischaracterized if it were only framed in terms of how an editor stepped over some journalistic line.

I now understand that the hurt feelings I caused weren’t just about being clumsy with words. I also failed to honor something fundamental.

And when you fail at that and realize it, it clarifies just how important that is, whether you’re a newspaper editor, or any human being who cares about respecting other people.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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