How do you say Kyiv? : NPR Public Editor Our language catches up with political realities

How do you say Kyiv?

Our language catches up with political realities

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

It's a sign of respect when you learn to pronounce someone's name the way they pronounce it themselves. The same is true for the capital city of Ukraine.

And so today, in response to a question that many of us have as we listen to frequent updates on a possible war in Europe, we are taking you deep into the conversation about how we wrap our American accents around the name of the city at the center of this conflict.

Even though this city, Kyiv, sounds more familiar to many American ears when you say it the Russian way, the actual residents of that city have their own language and their own pronunciation. With the Russian army perched on the border of Ukraine, you see the problem with that old pronunciation, right? Using the language of the threatening neighbors is more than inaccurate, it's disrespectful.

As we were looking into the evolution of the pronunciation of Kyiv, we learned that journalists often take their cues from the government spokespeople. There's some irony in that, given our second note; stick with us.

Another listener this week criticized NPR's habit of using the title spokesman, instead of spokesperson, as well as other gendered titles. Most government agencies have dropped the "man" from "spokesman" and "chairman." And yet it's fairly common to hear and see NPR stories revert to those old-fashioned titles. (It's supposed to be Fed Chair Jerome Powell, not chairman.)

In journalism, all of this — how you pronounce a proper noun or how you describe a title — is about determining which stakeholders you allow to influence your choices. Read on to see what we learned when we asked: Which stakeholders should NPR journalists listen to?

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

How do you say (and spell) Kyiv?

Ralph Lentz wrote on Feb. 15: Isn't the capital, Kiev, pronounced with 2 syllables? Kee-ev not Keev.

NPR is going with the Ukrainian pronunciation and spelling of the capital city, Kyiv.

There was a big discussion recently about exactly how Ukraine's capital should be pronounced. On Jan. 24, NPR Managing Editor Terry Samuel sent an email to the newsroom with the directive to say "KEE- eev," the Ukrainian pronunciation of Kyiv, instead of the Russian pronunciation, "KEY-ev." (Figuring out the difference between those two phonetic descriptions was the source of the confusion. Think of the Ukrainian pronunciation as two slightly separate syllables. It helps if you smile when you say it, according to this expert. The Russian influence makes the word two distinct syllables with the accent on the long E of the first part.)

Also, Samuel added, staff should, on occasion, note to listeners that NPR is using the Ukrainian pronunciation instead of the Russian one. He also included verbatim guidance from Martha Wexler, senior editor on NPR's International Desk: "KYIV is Ukrainian. Kiev is Russian. We should use Kyiv. It's like KEE-eev. But if you say KEEV that is fine."

An update was made to the internal NPR pronunciation guide, reaffirming the KEE-eev pronunciation. Also, NPR journalists never add a "the" in front of Ukraine, which is another holdover from the old Soviet Union days.

Leadership's guidance to the NPR newsroom on these issues devolved into an epic email chain that was possibly the most NPR-perfect moment we've witnessed. Sam Sanders, host of It's Been a Minute, described it as a "newsroom-wide reply-all apocalypse" on Twitter. "I couldn't be more proud to work with such sticklers for accuracy," he said.

Jerome Socolovsky, the audio storytelling specialist for NPR Training, wrote in this January piece about Kyiv's pronunciation: "While it's easy to make light of a debate about nomenclature, for the people involved, it's often a serious matter that is entwined with identity, geopolitics and national security." Ukraine has long been campaigning for its own spelling and pronunciation of Kyiv, he wrote.

It sounds different because for years the Russian influence spilled over into the American pronunciation. Getting the pronunciation right now, in the middle of a geopolitical conflict, is an accurate and overdue acknowledgement of Ukraine's autonomy. — Amaris Castillo with research from Kayla Randall

Gender-neutral language, please

Amy Goldstein wrote on Feb. 15: Please start using gender-neutral language across the board. I am so tired of hearing about spokesmen, policemen, chairmen, etc. It is 2022 — long past time to change the editorial policy of the stations at large, and not a tough sell.

We are with you. So is the Associated Press Stylebook, which NPR follows.

"In general, use terms that can apply to any gender. Such language aims to treat people equally and is inclusive of people whose gender identity is not strictly male or female," AP's Stylebook guidance says.

In practice, journalists balance inclusion with accuracy. The AP Stylebook says to use gender-inclusive terms unless a gendered term is specifically used by an organization and therefore must also be used by the news media to be accurate. For example, it suggests using "chair" or "chairperson" unless the terms "chairman" or "chairwoman" are officially used by an organization.

We analyzed a few recent NPR stories to see how they hold up on this standard:

So NPR could be doing more to abide by AP's guidance.

In last week's newsletter we wrote about the importance of inclusive language in general, and we specifically analyzed the term "pregnant people," which is used sometimes in place of "pregnant women" to acknowledge that some people who are pregnant may identify as trans men or nonbinary.

Tracking how language changes around gender identity is a never-ending process. Some encourage us to celebrate when a word like "guys" evolves from gender-specific to gender-neutral applications. "The battle over language is a battle over belonging, and over who gets to define boundaries and limits," author Lisa Selin Davis wrote in The Washington Post. "But I think that understanding how and why meanings change is more important than telling people what words they can and cannot say."

In addition to using neutral language when it makes sense, if we can talk about why we use a term, we may be able to build better understanding. "The goal isn't building consensus for the correct way of thinking; it's increasing understanding amid different ways of thinking, because consensus doesn't actually exist," Pennsylvania educator Erin McLaughlin told The Atlantic last year about valuing viewpoint diversity in education.

Language that makes you feel seen is important in news that's meant for everyone. So is explaining our language choices from time to time. — Emily Barske

Why not elevate local stations?

Phillip Wilke wrote on Feb. 10: RE: your [newsletter item] about "encore" stories. "It's a common practice in news media to reuse old stories that might resonate again," [you wrote.] ... No, no, I don't think it is. When I was in newspapers, we'd never run the same story twice. With my station now, we'd never run the same story twice.

NPR has 250+ affiliates with newsrooms eager to get their stories and reporters on the national feed. You should tap into that programming stream and run that dry before you resort to re-airing stories.

You have some priceless audio real estate. You shouldn't be wasting it on reruns. ...

NPR should absolutely do what it can to elevate programming from its affiliates. It's important for NPR to have more local-focused news, and perhaps even more important for NPR to elevate member station news to a national level.

"It's a tall order to cover each region of the U.S. equitably, but nonetheless, audience members expect to be represented in the news they consume," we wrote earlier this year. "When they don't feel represented, it gives them reason to feel national news outlets like NPR aren't for them. In a world of declining trust in national news, that's a problem."

NPR could continue to grow in this area, and boost more member station journalism.

Does that mean no NPR stories should ever be re-aired as encore pieces? No. Some well-reported and timeless pieces deserve to be heard again. — Emily Barske

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

Breaking hearts

NPR published a comic that illustrates the story of heartbreak. Illustrated by Brian "Box" Brown, the graphic story visualizes several narratives from cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar on TED Radio Hour 's episode about suffering from and soothing heartache. Jauhar describes his grandfather's death from a heart attack, and speaks about how, in his words, "broken hearts are literally and figuratively deadly." I appreciate finding meaningful stories told through both audio and visual art. — Kayla Randall

The revolving door of Latino shows

Like other fans of Gentefied, I was saddened to hear it was canceled by Netflix. The show about three Mexican American cousins trying to save their grandfather's taco shop while navigating their passions and relationships is not the first series about a Latino family to get the ax. It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders brings us an episode with TV writer and producer Gloria Calderón Kellett, whose own show One Day at a Time was also canceled. The conversation between the producer and Sanders dives into big questions, like who gets to make a show, and why shows centered on Latino experiences don't have as long of a life on screen. While listening, I found myself nodding in agreement, shaking my head, questioning Hollywood even more and, yes, laughing. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall and reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute