For well over a century the Associated Press has operated with the use of a style guide that writers refer to as “The Journalist’s Bible.” With more than 200 million distributed since 1977, students, writers, editors and businesses have been instructed in grammar, punctuation and word choice.
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The idea has been to “neutralize” words, or “depoliticize” concepts in order to present information to readers in a way that removes bias on the part of the reporter and clarifies issues.
A number of critics, including Rachel Alexander, said in an opinion piece for “The Hill,” that the opposite has been true in recent years.
“More often than not, style writers have been more interested in censoring conservative words while promoting language that liberals tend to favor,” Alexander said.
Pointing to the AP Stylebook – updated annually and available in print and online – Alexander noted the term “pro-life,” even if it is the choice of the writer, will be edited to reflect “pro-abortion.”
“”Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and pro-abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice,” the guide reads.
The nuances in the language are not likely accidental. Even a broad interpretation by Wikipedia of many of the terms used in the abortion debate references “political framing” – a process by which those with an agenda prefer one term rather than another to validate a particular stance while invalidating the opposition’s.
As far back as 1972, in Pubic Opinion Quarterly, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw suggested the news media uses framing to set the public agenda in this way: “In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position.”
The AP Stylebook also tells writers which terms to avoid, Alexander said.
“Avoid abortionist,” the AP Stylebook reads, because the term “connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions.”
Other hot button words to steer clear of are “terrorist” and “Islamist,” instead using “lone wolf” or “attacker” – and replacing “migrant” or “refugee” with “people struggling to enter Europe.”
Even the word “controversial” is frowned upon, according to the AP, apparently because it is “overused” – although many news organizations conveniently use the descriptor to “describe conservatives and their issues,” Alexander said.
In addition to dictating gender-neutral changes from words like “spokesman” and “spokeswomen” to “spokesperson,” the AP Stylebook has prompted changes to expressions and words addressing topics such as climate change, guns, Republicans and fake news.
Referencing The New York Times, which has its own stylebook, Alexander notes its not much different than the AP guide.
“[H]ow can the mainstream media correct their bias, when the bias is already built into their stylebooks?” Alexander asks.
— Joni B. Hannigan is a writer living in Jacksonville, Florida. Follow her on Twitter and view her website
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