Correction appended May 19 9:09 a.m.
When Huffington Post Senior Political Reporter and Politics Managing Editor Amanda Terkel called a Medill professor, she thought it would be a routine reference check. However, when she asked about a potential intern’s writing ability, she said the professor told her that most undergraduates are poor writers. She said he also added that because she sounded young, she was likely a bad writer as well.
I just called a journalism professor at Northwestern to ask about the writing skills of an intern candidate. Standard reference check (1/5)— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) May 18, 2016
He told me most undergrads tend to be bad writers. And said based on the sound of my voice, I was likely young and had issues too (2/5)— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) May 18, 2016
Told him that was incredibly offensive and gendered, since women often have younger sounding voices. He knows nothing about me (3/5)— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) May 18, 2016
And if I were a guy, same age, with a deeper voice, he probably wouldn’t say that. Can’t judge writing skills based on a voice. (4/5)— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) May 18, 2016
He informed me I was the one who was offensive and hung up. Worst reference check ever. The end. (5/5)— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) May 18, 2016
Terkel said she felt like the remarks were sexist because “women are often perceived to look younger or to sound younger and that can translate into maybe a lack of seriousness, a lack of experience or in this case, poor writing.” The professor's comments add to a growing awareness that female journalists, particularly broadcast ones, face sexist remarks regarding their voice.
“I was pretty surprised, but after I realized what he said I felt it was important to call it out,” she added, “because the remarks were incredibly offensive.”
She also said it is wrong to assume age is telling of writing ability.
Since Terkel tweeted about the incident, Professor Alec Klein, who teaches investigative journalism and directs The Medill Justice Project, said he was the professor who spoke with Terkel. He emailed the following statement to NBN:
I am the journalism professor from Medill who had a conversation with a Huffington Post editor today. She called about a reference for a student applying for an internship. I strongly recommended this student. When I saw this conversation was tweeted, I immediately called the editor and apologized for any misunderstanding we had over what we discussed. It was never my intention to leave the impression that the Huffington Post editor’s voice had anything to do with her writing ability. I wanted to make sure the misunderstanding didn’t hurt the student’s chances and I was assured it wouldn’t. The tweets also generated more tweets and comments about other professors, which concerned me. The Huffington Post editor has subsequently tweeted about the misunderstanding, which I appreciate. I think Medill students are extraordinary, and our goal is to help them become better writers and great journalists.
Later on Wednesday Terkel tweeted that Klein apologized and had not meant to come off as offensive.
The Northwestern professor I tweeted about earlier reached out apologized. Said he didn’t mean to come off the way he did (1/2)— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) May 18, 2016
Was very sincere and apologetic about his comments. Didn’t want it to reflect badly on the school. Really appreciated it! (2/2)— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) May 18, 2016
Of the 57 Medill journalism faculty members, 22 are female and 35 are male. Of those, there are 14 professors (as opposed to associate professors, assistant professors, visiting professors, etc.), 10 of whom are male and 4 of whom are female.
A few students and others have also reacted to the incident on social media.
Has anyone figured out who the sexist Medill prof was yet? My most assy teachers were adjuncts, so I have no guesses.— Anna Maltby (@amalt) May 18, 2016
good to know you can get the medill "crush all hope and confidence" educational experience without even paying https://t.co/gc4Z0rV2MV— Shaunacy Ferro (@shaunacysays) May 18, 2016
Wednesday’s incident did not change Terkel’s perception of Medill.
“I am still a big fan of Medill and Northwestern and I have many friends and co-workers and former interns who went to Medill and they have all been fantastic,” she said.
Medill could not be reached for comment as of Wednesday evening.
Editor's note 5/19 3:24 a.m.: This post was updated to remove an embedded social media reaction at the request of its author.
Correction: This story originally stated in paragraph five that Klein said he made the statements in question. Klein only said he was the professor who spoke to Terkel but did not comment on the content of their conversation. NBN regrets this error.