On Media Style Guides, Inclusive Language and "Political Correctness" / by Beth Winegarner

Photo by Flickr user  r. nial bradshaw .

Photo by Flickr user r. nial bradshaw.

My first paid journalism job was working as a copy editor for the Daily Californian, the student-run newspaper at UC Berkeley. We had a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook -- the copy-editor's Bible -- that we shared at the desk, but each of us was issued our own copy of the Daily Californian's style guide. 

It covered all the things the AP Stylebook didn't, including names and titles particular to the school, but also a number of terms related to ethnicity and diversity that were more respectful and inclusive. For example, it required us to use the terms "Latino" or "Latina" instead of "Hispanic," recognizing that "Hispanic" improperly centers the Spaniards who colonized Central and South America. It said to use "African American" where appropriate, and Native American instead of Indian; you get the idea. These are common terms now, but they weren't in the early 1990s, when the guide was written.

I've worked in a handful of other media organizations since that worked hard to use the most respectful and inclusive language possible, going beyond what the AP Stylebook recommends. And some nonprofits have developed additional media guides of their own, including GLAAD and the J-School at San Francisco State University.

There are, of course, critics who decry "political correctness" and associate the use of such language with some sort of abhorrent "liberal agenda." But one of the roles of journalism is to inform people, and the purpose behind style conventions is to make sure that a piece of reporting is clear, whether you're reading it in the San Francisco Chronicle or The Economist. If we can all agree that the word "tree" refers to a large plant with a trunk, roots, branches and leaves, then we can probably also agree that "Native American" refers to someone whose ancestors lived on one of the American continents before explorers arrived from Europe. The point of a lot of this terminology is not only to be more respectful and inclusive, but also to locate the most neutral language possible to describe someone or something. And the point of standardizing such language is to make sure readers understand what a word means, wherever it might appear. 

This week, I was editing an article in which the writer had begun several sentences with "he or she." Fifty years ago, it would have only been "he," and I appreciate that the writer wanted to be more gender-inclusive, especially since it was an article about members of a profession that isn't as male-dominated as it used to be. But, not only is "he or she" clunky -- especially when repeated several times -- it doesn't leave space for folks who don't identify as "he" or "she." I replaced each one with a singular "they," which worked easily in context, works grammatically, and doesn't give the impression that only "hes" or "shes" can pursue that line of work. 

Even the AP Stylebook folks are beginning to embrace it

Language shifts regularly, both as new ideas come into being and as formerly marginalized voices gain visibility and access to the shaping of that language. We are far from finished, and terms we use now might be seem dated or harmful in 20 years. I'm personally thankful for that first style guide, and the fact that it put me on a life-long path of considering these issues.