Thursday, December 08, 2022

Making things up about the stylebook

You’d think a truce had been declared in the War on Christmas or something if the comrades at The Daily Signal (“multimedia news platform” of the Heritage Foundation) have time to turn their attention to this:

Journalists are being told not to use the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” when writing about abortion. 

Fond of the passive as we are around here, that’s the sort of passive that ought to get your attention, herding-cats-wise.

The Associated Press issued new guidelines for the topic of abortion Monday. The writing stylebook says to now “use the modifiers anti-abortion or abortion-rights; don’t use pro-life, pro-choice or pro-abortion unless they are in quotes or proper names. Avoid abortionist, which connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions.”

Do tell!

The Associated Press is the most common stylebook among journalists, used by news outlets on the political left and right, including The Daily Signal. However, the updated abortion guidelines are one set of writing rules The Daily Signal will not be following. 

Who’s going to break it to them? Kids, these are not "new guidelines." The same language appears in the 2018 edition. And here's the "abortion" entry from 2014:

abortion Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and pro-abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice

2002 is almost identical (both also include the caution about "abortionist"):

abortion Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice

The Daily Signal may be a business-casual version of the Trump cult, but it's hardly the first news outlet to claim allegiance to the AP Stylebook while showing no signs of having ever opened one before the current assignment. (Not for nothing do editors have jokes like "How do you hide a $20 bill from a reporter?") Nor is it the first right-wing outlet to throw a hizzy over an AP style decision; here's a Fox News lead story panicking over the 2013 decision on "illegal immigrant." And it's hardly the first to overlook the staunchly, often bizarrely, conservative history of AP style. This is the agency, after all, where "black" became "acceptable in all references for Negro" in 1980 and women were allowed to appear without courtesy titles in 1986 -- the same year "Native American" was ruled out because their ancestors had "migrated to the continent over a land bridge from Asia." That combination of foot-dragging and bogus empiricism (don't even get me started on AP and Islam) puts the piece's ill-submerged resentment in a different light:

Words have power, and it is no secret that the media sometimes uses the power of words to shift or alter the narrative around an issue or story.

Yes. That's called "framing," and it's been happening since roughly the dawn of time. Framing is how events turn into stories, and if it bothers you now, you might have some explaining to do about the "war on terror."

Does this mean -- horrors! -- that The Daily Signal is lying? I'd say this is more accurately described as bullshitting (Frankfurt, 2009). The Daily Signal doesn't really care whether its patently bogus assertion is true. The marks are already in the tent, the band is playing and pretty soon the preacher is going to come on with his best if-that-don't-fetch-'em-I-don't-know Arkansaw tale of how The Media are a step away from stealing your freedoms. But it still wouldn't hurt for someone at the Signal to open a stylebook every now and then. You never can tell when one of the marks will catch on.

Frankfurt, H.G. (2009). On bullshit. In On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.


Anonymous sverner said...

I thought we’d been using “anti-abortion” since the ‘80s. The Observer seems to have forgotten all about that style rule. I see “pro-life” in it anytime it runs a story about abortion rights.

10:39 PM, December 08, 2022  
Blogger fev said...

That was certainly the practice when I arrived at the Observer in ‘88 — my Observer stylebook is at the office, so I can’t say how it might have been written, but IIRC it didn’t need to be. 2000 is the earliest entry I know of in AP.

Someone needs to do a paper on how or whether local style rules have survived into the age of hubbing.

7:37 PM, December 09, 2022  

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