To Describe Innovators Facing Challenges, GPJ Reconsiders ‘Resilient’

June 14, 2017

GLOBAL PRESS HQ — The woman from Kenya, the head of a respected global advocacy group, told the assembled reporters, photographers and editors in the room to stop identifying women as resilient in news stories, saying that it is the nature of women to be resilient and this should not be a surprise – or news.

A minute before, I had nodded my head when she said to eliminate the word “victim” from stories. Our GPJ stylebook has this entry: “Do not use the word victim. Write around it in every instance.

  • 130 people died in a terrorist attack
  • Person who was trafficked
  • A person who experienced domestic violence”

But what was the problem with the word resilient? I had just used the word the day before to introduce a series on small business owners in Zimbabwe, some who had been laid off from work in Zimbabwe’s struggling economy. I used it in the headline as well.

I thought the word was important to show why we were clustering articles that focus on what many people who have lost their jobs in Zimbabwe are doing to survive: The man who started a wheelbarrow collective by recycling used metal to fill the need for wheelbarrows in both mining and agriculture and who is employing five people; the woman who is recycling polystyrene, called kaylite in Zimbabwe, into bags that aid cooking and cooling; and the five brothers who went from being shoe salesmen to becoming shoemakers to serve patrons who don’t have the money for footwear in retail shops.

Our reporters on the ground pitch us the most important stories in their communities, and in Zimbabwe we had a torrent of pitches like this. So many that we decided to group them together as a series to increase their impact. The key element that links these stories, I thought in writing the introduction, is resilience in the face of an economy that seems to be continuing to contract.

So the denunciation of the word by Musimbi Kanyoro, president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, one of the dinner speakers at the Pulitzer Center’s Gender Lens Conference on June 3, caused me some discomfort. Not just in describing women, but in describing men as well.

Why wouldn’t we consider all of those in Zimbabwe living under these conditions and beginning small businesses resilient? Why were we reporting these stories of small entrepreneurs when of course many people in their situation would be doing the same in any country? Was this news?

Some of the answers hark back to GPJ’s mission. We are not publishing these articles to show that there are solutions to problems, though some of our stories do that. We are not publishing stories to show how people figure out how to make a living after they’ve been laid off. GPJ reporters tell the stories of their world, and part of their world is how people are surviving and prospering despite difficult conditions. Another part of these stories and this series is showing how the government’s declared rollout of a $25 million program for tech startups in Bulawayo will likely only end up investing a fifth of that amount, and our stories will tell about what companies will do with or without this money.

In discussing the use of the word resilience with our team we focused on what the best writing strives to do: use precise terms and eliminate the extraneous. Show, not tell. Looking at the series lead-in and headline again before publishing, I struck the word resilient in both places.

It’s clear from each GPJ reporter’s article in the series that every person featured is resilient – and smart – and innovative.

So Kanyoro was right. When true stories are told well, the word resilient is redundant.