UPDATE: VICTORY! AP has corrected its error, and created a new styleguide entry recognizing that the legal marriages of gay couples are just as much “marriages” as legal marriages of straight couples.
NOTE FROM JOHN: I’ve asked my friend Janet Kornblum, a former reporter for both USA Today and CNET, to weigh in on the controversy over the Associated Press’ policy of “generally” not using the terms “husband” or “wife” for legally-wed gay people.
When I first read about the brouhaha over the Associated Press’ edict over how to refer to lesbian and gay spouses, I thought oh, this is one of those insider stories. It will turn out to be nothing but a big misunderstanding, especially after the AP clarifies it.
But the AP clarified. And it got worse.
This was the clarification:
SAME-SEX COUPLES: We were asked how to report about same-sex couples who call themselves “husband” and “wife.” Our view is that such terms may be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms (“Smith is survived by his husband, John Jones”) or in quotes attributed to them. Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.
I kept thinking, hmmm, I must not be understanding this. But there it is in black and white: It’s the last sentence that really puts the nail in the coffin, likening civil unions to same-sex marriages. Isn’t the whole point of marriage that it really is different from civil unions (I say this in spite of the fact that same-sex marriages don’t yet come with federal rights, but that’s another story).
Surely, the AP isn’t saying that spouses shouldn’t be called spouses except in special circumstances. Surely the straightlaced AP wasn’t saying that husbands are not husbands and wives are not wives—unless they are heterosexual.
That would be taking a stand, equating legal gay marriages with civil unions and not, well, marriages. That would be making a statement. That would be basically siding with people who are anti-“gay marriage.” Referring to a spouse as “partner” subtly says that legally sanctioned same-sex marriages are not equivalent to heterosexual marriages.
It’s taking a stand.
And the AP does not take stands. At least it isn’t supposed to.
In this case, we’re talking about married people who are legally married – not those who simply refer to each other as spouses. They have the paper from the state proving that they are married. Isn’t that the point?
And in the AP’s case, they matter a lot.
Because the AP makes the rules. The AP is down the line. If the New York Times is the gray flannel suit of journalism, the AP is the plain brown one with patches on the sleeves and sensible shoes.
When an editor wants to let a reporter know that she want a no-frills, just-the-facts-ma’am, story, she tells the reporter “go with the AP lede.”
When a reporter is not sure how to refer to someone, he asks, what’s the style? He’s usually referring to AP Style (although some publications like magazines use the Chicago Manual of Style). I’m old enough to have begun my career banging out my stories on a Royal, and I’ve written for everything from websites to newspapers. I can tell you that the one thing that’s remained constant is this: Follow the style. Know AP Style. Every reporter knows this.
What the AP says, goes. And guess what? This rule will have real repercussions. It probably already has. I don’t think it will affect AP’s excellent gay-issues reporters. But it will affect others.
It means that when the local newspaper writes about a lesbian couple who just got wed, the reporter just might call them partners, rather than wives or spouses—not because the reporter has anything against the couple, but because—yep—the AP said to do it.
The message that the average reader drinking in the news sees is this: oh, this couple? They’re married, but they aren’t really married. They’re just partners. They’re not really equal to heterosexual couples. They’re something else. Something other.
And because the AP is so powerful, that message gets passed along repeatedly – from newspapers to television to blogs to Twitter to Facebook and so on.
It matters. It makes a difference.
So AP, I refuse to believe that you’re the kind of organization that has this kind of bias.
In fact, I’ve had the privilege of covering several gay issues, including the same-sex marriage issue for USA Today. I’ve always admired the AP’s coverage, for being fair, inclusive and sometimes ahead of the pack.
So Associated Press, stand up and admit that you made a mistake. And then correct it. Because like I said before, it matters. It really matters.