Opinionista Lara Stavridis 11 July 2013

What a newsroom style guide tells us about the world

While a newsroom style guide should tell you if “unfriend” is a real word, it should also be as flexible and dynamic as a language. Let's explore how changes in the AP Stylebook tackle stereotypes and gender roles.

The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook is the go-to style and usage guide in about 1 400 US newsrooms. The self-styled “journalist’s bible”, updated annually, provides an interesting cultural barometer as language evolves over time.

While the book’s appearance in South African news organisations may be as rare as the proper use of semicolons, its approach to language is inevitably reflected in local newspapers and websites that publish material produced in the US. And ultimately, the way we use language shapes the way we see the world.

From its addition of “Ms” in 1980 – a neutral, gender-courteous title for women – to the 2010 entry on ROFL (chat-room shorthand for “rolling on the floor laughing”), the evolution of the guide’s entries since its first edition in 1953 reflects, sometimes belatedly, the world around it.

Of course, the fastest-growing lexicon is in the realm of technology. The AP Stylebook editors constantly face tough decisions: is “unfriend” a real word or should hashtag be hyphenated? Language is always evolving, but social media is causing it to move at light speed. Deciding to add “retweet”, however, does not have the socio-political ramifications associated with more controversial topics.

At the April 2013 conference of the American Copy Editors Society in St. Louis, the Stylebook’s editorial team explained some of the changes they have announced this year. Not surprisingly, two of the most widely debated changes concern immigration and same-sex marriage.

The term “illegal immigrant” first appeared in the AP Stylebook in 2004. In April, the editors announced they were dropping the term. “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person,” said executive editor Kathleen Carroll.

According to the AP, a person should never be referred to as illegal. An action can be illegal; a person cannot. Instead, the AP suggests the more unwieldy: “living in or immigrating to a country illegally”. But this is more than just a word change – immigration reform advocates are celebrating because this phrase has dehumanising connotations.

The AP also announced a change to its definition of “Islamist”, to remove negative connotations. The Stylebook previously read: Supporter of government in accord with the laws of Islam. Those who view the Koran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.” In the new entry, the AP recommends that journalists “do not use Islamist as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists”. This change is particularly pertinent in the wake of recurrent outbreaks of anti-Muslim sentiment, such as the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in April, when the hashtag #muslims started trending on Twitter and the US Muslim community received a spate of negative comments and threats.

The AP’s welcome (indeed, overdue) moves away from labelling people are reflected in a few other recent changes.

The entries on gender are an encouraging sign that stereotyping has also moved on. About 40 years ago, this entry was added: “Copy should not express surprise that an attractive woman can be professionally accomplished, as in: Mary Smith doesn’t look the part but she’s an authority on …” Well, times really have changed. This year the AP Stylebook has added a new entry in recognition of equal rights, regardless of sexual orientation. The guide suggests that husband or wife should be used to describe partners in any legally recognised marriage. The AP has also banned “homophobia”, as “-phobia” implies an uncontrollable fear often associated with mental illness, and is therefore not accurate in this usage.

The Stylebook added an entry on mental illness in March this year. The guide recommends that journalists avoid referring to people as mentally ill unless it is clearly relevant to the story and properly sourced. Moreover, it is preferable to refer to specific disorders rather than the vague “mental illness”. Descriptions that connote pity, such as “suffers from” or “afflicted with” should be avoided. When the AP’s addition is read in conjunction with other recent developments, such as the release of Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook, which focuses on bipolar disorder, it is clear that the stigma surrounding mental health is starting to be tackled.

Is the AP just trying to be politically correct? Some of the suggested alternative phrases involve longer, clunky descriptions, but it’s better than using blanket terms that build in bias. There is a welcome emphasis on being specific; using first-hand knowledge, not relying on hearsay or speculation, and avoiding broad-brushing people. But these are not new concepts; they are the foundation of good reporting, both here and abroad. DM

Lara Stavridis, an editor at Cape Town-based Clarity Editorial, attended the American Copy Editors Society conference in April this year.


In other news...

South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.

However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

If you believe in supporting the cause and the work of Daily Maverick then take your position on the battleground and sign up to Maverick Insider today.

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