Every urbanite’s worst nightmare came true for one New Yorker this week: Jennifer Rosoff, leaning against the railing on the balcony of her Upper East Side apartment, suddenly fell 17 stories to her death after the railing gave way. This is obviously horrifying and tragic. Rosoff was a media executive with stints at The New Yorker and Cosmopolitan on her resume. It’s outrageous that the owners of her building were so remiss in their balcony inspection duties. But if you skimmed the beginning of the Associated Press’s account of Rosoff’s accidental death, you wouldn’t get much information about Rosoff’s promising career or about the structural inadequacies of her balcony. Here are the first two paragraphs of the AP’s article about Rosoff:
A 35-year-old media executive on a first date plunged to her death Thursday after the railing on her 17th-floor New York City balcony gave way, police said.
Jennifer Rosoff went outside for a cigarette around 12:50 a.m. when she either sat on the railing or leaned on it. Her date told her that she probably shouldn't do it, and then moments later, she apparently fell backward and landed on construction scaffolding at the first floor, authorities said. Police spoke to the man and no foul play was suspected.
Let’s break this down. According to the AP, the crucial facts you need to know about Rosoff right off the bat are that:
1. She was 35 and single.
2. She was a smoker.
3. She invited a man back to her apartment late at night on a first date.
4. The man warned her not to lean against the balcony, but she did it anyway.
The implication being that this smoking slut totally had it coming. A reader is left with the distinct impression that if Rosoff hadn’t invited her date inside, hadn’t gone outside to smoke a cigarette, and hadn’t defied the advice of the wise and logical man she was with, she would still be alive. According to the AP story’s subtext, the problem wasn’t that Rosoff’s balcony railing was shoddy and unsafe—it was that Rosoff defied gender norms by being unmarried at 35, by being sexually liberal, and by insisting on making her own decisions instead of deferring to men’s logic.
You may accuse me of overreacting, but the minor details that journalists choose to include or exclude from their reporting are one of many subtle ways that oppressive gender norms are perpetuated. Do I think the AP reporter assigned to this piece (incidentally, a woman) intended to undermine the reader’s sympathy for Rosoff and suggest she was asking for it? Of course not. But the fact that totally irrelevant details about Rosoff’s love life and cigarette habit made it into the lede and nut graf of an ostensibly unbiased news article—and that no editor stopped to ask, “Hmm, why is this information here?”—just goes to show how deeply ingrained sexist attitudes can be, even among professionals who pride themselves on their objectivity.
But just because this particular instance of media sexism was likely inadvertent doesn’t mean it’s forgivable. Readers—not to mention Rosoff’s family and friends—deserve better than suggestive innuendo and victim-blaming. And though scanning one’s writing for traces of chauvinism requires a little time and humility, it’s not exactly hard. I took the liberty of rewriting the AP’s lede sans sexist insinuation, while adding some more relevant information that appears later on in the original article:
A 35-year-old media executive plunged to her death Thursday after the railing on her 17th-floor New York City balcony gave way, police said.
Jennifer Rosoff, who worked for a new media advertising startup called TripleLift, was outside with a friend around 12:50 a.m. when she either sat on the railing or leaned on it. Moments later, she apparently fell backward and landed on construction scaffolding at the first floor, authorities said. Police spoke to the friend and no foul play was suspected. Buildings officials took part of the broken railing to examine how it could have given way and plan to determine whether the other balconies in the building are structurally sound.
Now, was that so hard? It’s less salacious than the original version, certainly. But unlike the original version, it conveys the fact that Rosoff’s death was a tragic accident, not an instance of cosmic justice.