Gut Check: Working with a Sensitivity Reader

 

Science writer Kate Horowitz had just landed an assignment she was excited about: a reported essay for the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room exploring trauma and recovery in the Guillermo del Toro horror film Crimson Peak. The film shows how the movie’s three main characters underwent childhood trauma, including physical violence and a mother’s death. In her essay, Horowitz probed the characters’ universe through the lens of trauma psychology. As she researched and wrote the piece, she strove to represent trauma survivors’ challenges through recovery as accurately as possible; she carefully researched trauma, and drew on her own experiences as a trauma survivor. At the same time, she knew that her experiences couldn’t represent all survivors’, and was wary of making generalizations.

“Trauma survivors have been through enough—they don’t need me to get this wrong, too,” says Horowitz.

So Horowitz decided to enlist the services of a sensitivity reader: someone who would review her work with an eye towards accurate representation of marginalized groups. The practice of sensitivity reading originated with fiction writing, and it’s still relatively rare in journalism. But working with a sensitivity reader can be an important step to crafting richer and more accurate stories.

Because it’s not built into most publications’ editorial process, the decision to enlist a sensitivity reader often falls to writers. Though publications may have some in-house resources that can be helpful—for example, an Asian American editor may be asked to read through a colleague’s piece on the use of CRISPR in China—staffers may not be knowledgeable about the particular communities or places a writer covers in a piece. Hiring a reader can help writers have confidence in their piece’s framing and details even before editors weigh in.

And that’s what Horowitz did: For her essay, she worked with a therapist who specializes in trauma, who provided feedback on Horowitz’s discussions of current trauma theory and recovery. Horowitz paid $50 for an hour of her reader’s time. “It was absolutely worth it,” she says. Hiring a reader gave Horowitz peace of mind not only that she’d accurately represented the science, but also that she’d approached her discussion of survivors’ healing with the requisite care.

Like fact-checking, sensitivity reading can help illuminate the truth by avoiding harmful stereotypes or mischaracterizations. Montreal-based reporter Selena Ross says she works with sensitivity readers when writing about cultures or places she’s not familiar with, because they provide valuable insight on the big-picture issues in her portrayals. “You want people from that place or culture to read it, respect it, and feel like it’s true to reality,” she says. Ross says just as she calls experts to explain a technical concept, she calls experts with experience participating in a particular community. When she wanted to double-check the cultural nuances of a story that took place in northern Canada, an area unfamiliar to her, she asked a friend who was from a northern Indigenous culture to read it over. “The last stage in my process is calling someone who knows the subject … to make sure I framed it right,” she says.

Gaius Augustus, a multimedia communicator and visual storyteller who identifies as transgender non-binary, says he believes that any story that highlights experiences outside the journalist’s own ought to be run by a sensitivity reader. Augustus has been on both sides of the process—he’s served as a reader for writers working on pieces that include transgender people, and has enlisted sensitivity readers on other topics himself.

Augustus says that while writing articles about people with cancer, he asked several people to share their opinions on the language he used. People commonly use terms like “cancer survivor” or “cancer patient,” or use metaphors of war such as “battling” or “fighting” cancer. Some people take issue with those characterizations, while others find strength in them. “Because I have never had cancer and haven’t been close to anyone going through that experience, I wanted to make sure my language was appropriate,” says Augustus. In deciding what language to use, he says, he follows a source’s lead and uses their preferred language.

While many science stories could benefit from sensitivity readers’ perspectives, it may not always be logistically or financially possible to enlist a reader. The best way to know whether you should commit to the process is to listen to your gut. Do you feel like you’re out of your depth, or worry about wading into controversial territory? That’s what drove Horowitz to hire her reader. “I knew I would not be comfortable putting it out there unless someone with more knowledge than me and more grounding in [the trauma] community, research, and practice could review it,” she says.

 

Deciding to Use a Sensitivity Reader

Writers sometimes don’t begin to consider the need for a sensitivity reader until a story is nearly done. But the ideal time to consult such a reader is early in the writing and reporting process. The very framing of a story can be problematic, and a sensitivity reader’s early feedback might educate writers on key facts, issues, or perspectives to help shape the piece.

For example, in April 2019, Science published a feature by journalist Sam Kean about scientists’ role in the transatlantic slave trade in the 1700s. The article prompted complaints, in part because it centered the perspective of white scholars, including by quoting sources using the terms “we” and “us” in describing scientists’ lack of knowledge about that history. In a published letter to Science, ecologist Rae Wynn-Grant, a fellow with the National Geographic Society, wrote that this framing “suggests an underlying assumption that neither the Africans and African-Americans enslaved nor their descendants, who experienced and survived 400+ years of the transatlantic slave trade, were scientists then or are scientists today.” She added that although the feature may have intended to raise awareness about white scientists’ problematic involvement in the slave trade, the article’s language and context “upholds colonial science and white supremacy.”

Kean told me he thought Wynn-Grant’s letter “raised some fair points,” and that “[i]f a sensitivity reader had flagged things, [he] certainly would have been open to altering parts of it.” He says he doesn’t agree that the article overall promotes white supremacy or absolves those who benefited from the slave trade. In a published response to Wynn-Grant’s letter, Kean’s editor Tim Appenzeller, Science’s news editor, echoed Kean’s sentiment, but apologized for the story’s language. Appenzeller told me that the editorial team didn’t consult a sensitivity reader, but wished they had. “Since then, we have asked for sensitivity reads on stories about similar topics,” he says, including for a piece on the archaeology of slavery in the Caribbean.

Other editors might similarly be open to bringing a sensitivity reader on board, and may even have a budget for doing so. Others may not even know it’s an option, or may not offer financial support for a sensitivity reader. (None of the journalists I spoke with for this piece had asked an editor or publication to cover the cost of hiring a reader, but it makes sense to at least ask.)

Regardless, writers who are interested in using a sensitivity reader should talk first with their editors. For one thing, some publications have editorial policies that prohibit sharing unpublished copy with outsiders before publication; editors and writers can work together to determine acceptable boundaries for what to share with a reader.

Additionally, working with a sensitivity reader without your editor’s knowledge can cause later problems. “If the editor doesn’t agree with you or doesn’t see [a sensitivity reader] as important, and reverts [suggested] changes, that can sometimes, and often does, reflect on the writer,” says Ebonye Gussine Wilkins, a social justice writer and editor who has served as a sensitivity reader, as well as taught workshops and cowritten a booklet about nonfiction sensitivity reading.

Before consulting with a sensitivity reader, it’s important to be open to receiving an honest critique, and to commit to carefully considering that reader’s feedback. Of course, writers are not required to make all (or any!) changes readers suggest, but should be committed to understanding the roots of any problems their readers identify.

Having a reader review a piece should never be a checkbox, or a way to cover bases before publication, but rather a tool to explore what consequences—intended or unintended—a piece might have. And sensitivity reading is not a guarantee that a piece is problem-free. “The point [of such a read] is not to absolve the writer,” Gussine Wilkins says. Readers, like writers, bring their own biases and experiences to their work, and may have different ideas about appropriate representations or portrayals. As Augustus notes, “A sensitivity reader should never be considered a representative of a whole minority.”

 

Finding a Sensitivity Reader

In finding the right sensitivity readers for your project, identity is paramount. Gussine Wilkins recommends enlisting more than one person. Two to three is a good start, but working with “as many [readers] as your budget can allow” will provide valuable insights, especially if readers have intersecting identities. For example, she says, “Disabled people face stigma and ableism in the world, and Black people face a lot of racism and other stigmas in the world, but what is it like … when those identities converge?” In that case, hiring both a Black reader and a disabled reader could provide valuable perspectives.

A good place to start looking for sensitivity readers is through online directories. Writer and sensitivity reader Renee Harleston keeps a directory of sensitivity readers on her website, Writing Diversely, which lists readers’ background, rates, and reading interests. (UPDATE: The group Editors of Color also includes sensitivity readers in its database of journalism professionals. [h/t to reader Lila Guterman.])  Writing consulting groups like Salt & Sage and Quiethouse Editing also feature readers-for-hire and their expertise. Some writers have also successfully sought sensitivity readers from within writing communities or professional organizations they belong to, or by asking for referrals on social media. Successful solicitations include information about the scope of the work, the perspective a reader might bring to a piece, and the offered rate.

Though some sensitivity readers offer their services through companies and professional listings, others may only sporadically take on work as a reader if approached by writers seeking their insights. A good reader need not have any formal training; lived experience can provide important perspective.

Horowitz says she looks for someone who is active in the community she’s writing about. “I don’t want someone who just studied the thing, but who knows what the current issues are,” she says. For instance, in her piece on family violence, trauma, and recovery, she was looking for a reader who not only had the expertise to assess facts such as her definition of trauma, but who also had insight into survivors’ experiences and the ability to weigh in on whether her descriptions of current treatments and survivors’ behaviors were accurate.

While writers sometimes ask trusted friends or colleagues to do a quick review of a piece as an unpaid favor, consider paying your reader for their expertise. After all, reading and commenting on a piece is a type of editing, which is paid work. As Ross points out, people with specific expertise that makes them sought-after sensitivity readers have probably been asked for this type of labor frequently, whether by journalists or others. “If you’re finding someone to weigh in on or explain Inuit history and knowledge to you, odds are they’ve been asked to do that dozens of times in the last year,” she says. “They are asked constantly to do free work of this kind,” so it’s best to offer compensation for their time.

Moreover, sensitivity reading also involves emotional labor. As a reader, you’re “putting yourself in a vulnerable position,” says Horowitz. In reviewing a piece for offensive, problematic, and inaccurate portrayals, she says readers are “on the front lines … the buffer between the author and the reader.” Providing constructive feedback in a productive yet direct way takes time and energy.

 

Working with a Sensitivity Reader

Once you find the right person to work with, establish expectations. Like writer-editor relationships, each writer-reader relationship results in a unique process. If you’re a writer seeking a reader’s expertise, Augustus recommends knowing what you want out of the collaboration. “Whenever I start a read, I always ask for the type of critique the requester wants. Some people want a general feeling, while others want answers to very specific questions,” he says. And it’s fine to tell them that you don’t want a change in voice or grammar edits, he says.

When Horowitz reached out to the reader she hired for her reported essay, she began the relationship by explaining her project and her goals in hiring a reader. Then she offered an hourly rate, asking the reader if they thought her offer was fair. Though there are no standard rates for sensitivity reading, resources such as the Editorial Freelancers Association’s rate list suggest reasonable hourly rates for similar work, like fact-checking or developmental editing, based on what your project entails. Readers’ rates are similar to fact-checkers; typically, writers can expect to pay $30 to $60 per hour, though some sensitivity readers may charge more.

Sometimes, readers may decline payment—perhaps because they’re happy to read as a favor to a writer, or because they feel that accepting payment would be a conflict of interest. If that happens, Ross recommends finding some other way to thank the person. For example, she gifted one reader a magazine subscription, and another a home-cooked meal. “In cases where people agree to do you a favor, find a gesture to say thank you,” she advises.

In time- and cash-strapped newsrooms, hiring a sensitivity reader might not always be possible (or at least, newsroom leaders may not make it a priority). For freelancers whose clients don’t cover the cost of hiring a sensitivity reader, doing so may be cost-prohibitive; and hiring multiple readers could eat up their entire freelance fee. When hiring a sensitivity reader isn’t an option, Ross suggests, writers can contact experts who weren’t sources for the story to fact-check specific, sensitive details or historical context they’re unsure about.

For example, to talk through her work on Indigenous communities, she’s reached out to Indigenous advisors at Canadian universities. Numerous professional groups also offer resources to help journalists approach their work with sensitivity (see “Diversity Resources for Journalists”).

In some respects, the very fact that sensitivity readers are so often needed reflects a pervasive problem in journalism: a dismal lack of diversity in most newsrooms. Long-term, systemic changes in journalism, including changes in recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices, as well as improved training and professional development opportunities focused on inclusivity and equity, would ensure that newsrooms are better equipped to handle all stories with sensitivity, from the beginning of the editorial process.

In the absence of such systemic change, sensitivity readers can illuminate overlooked issues and provide insights from communities that editorial team members are not active in. “Stories are definitely better off” for doing so, says Augustus, “because it means more accurate and meaningful representations—and it can even give you new story ideas.”

 

 

Editors’ note: You may have noticed that The Open Notebook has begun capitalizing the word Black when referring to Black people and Black communities. This change is in response to recent dialogue, during the course of reporting this story, around how to represent the people and descendants of the African diaspora. As Lori L. Tharps put it in a 2014 New York Times op-ed on the topic: “When speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized. Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.”

Just as we and others capitalize references to other races or cultures—Asian American, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Latinx, for example—we are now using the same convention with the term Black, when referring to race. This decision is in keeping with some style guides’ recommendations and is a departure from others. (The Chicago Manual of Style, the style guide TON uses, defaults to lower case but allows capitalization if an author or publication prefers. The National Association of Black Journalists style guide does not capitalize the terms black or white. The Conscious Style Guide and Diversity Style Guide capitalize both.) TON joins publications such as EbonyEssence, The Seattle Times, STAT, the Detroit Metro Times, the Toronto Standard, and others in capitalizing the B in Black. Like some other publications, we will continue to use white in the lower case as a physical descriptor, despite the typographical inconsistency of doing so. One reason for this decision is that, as The Seattle Times style guide notes, “Capitalized white is often used by the white nationalist/white supremacist movement.”

 

Jane HuCourtesy of Jane C. Hu

Jane C. Hu

Jane C. Hu is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, National Geographic, The Atlantic, Outside, Scientific American, Columbia Journalism Review, Slate, and others. She was an early-career fellow at The Open Notebook in 2017. You can find her on Twitter @jane_c_hu.