AP stylebook entry recognizes gay marriages. VICTORY!

Hallelujah!  The Associated Press has corrected its incorrect assertion that legally-wed gay couples should generally not be referred to in the same manner as legally-wed straight couples.

About time.  And the right thing to do.

The following entry was added today to the AP Stylebook Online and also will appear in the new print edition and Stylebook Mobile, published in the spring:

husband, wife Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.

“The AP has never had a Stylebook entry on the question of the usage of husband and wife,” said AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes. “All the previous conversation was in the absence of such a formal entry. This lays down clear and simple usage. After reviewing existing practice, we are formalizing ‘husband, wife’ as an entry.”

As you may recall, this issue blew up a week ago when an internal AP memo was leaked to Jim Romenesko indicating that the news organization “generally” uses “partner” for married gay couples, and directing reporters to only use the terms “husband” or “wife” for legally-wed gay people if the reference was in quotes, or if the couple “regularly used” the terms about themselves.  No such rule existed for when to use husband and wife to refer to legally-married straight couples.

AP’s fix, above, is perfect.  It treats all legal marriages the same, which was the most important component we were asking for.  Don’t give us “special rights,” but don’t give us special wrongs either.  There was no valid reason to minimize the legal marriages of gay people you’re either married or you’re not, and in the 9 states and DC where gay couples can wed, the marriages are the exact same thing, straight and gay.

As for the guts of the new guideline, it basically leaves it up to the reporter  – it says husband and wife are aceptable (but not required) if the couple is legally married.  But, feel free to ask them if they prefer to be called partners or spouses.  Perfect.  That respects the couple’s desires, if there any, to be called something else, but at the same time – again – applies the same rule to all legal marriages, straight and gay.

AP reporter David Crary, who last week said, in essence, that he would not follow the new style guide limitation on the use of husband and wife, commented on the new stylebook entry:

“I’m pleased that the AP has added a formal entry in its Stylebook regarding terminology for married couples. After a style guidance memo on the topic was distributed in-house on Feb. 11, it raised concerns among some members of the news staff and became the subject of internal discussions. The resulting Stylebook entry reflects an even-handed approach which many of my colleagues and I have been following and look forward to following in the future.”

Janet Kornblum, a former reporter with USA Today and CNET, explained this morning on AMERICAblog why the AP Stylebook matters:

Words matter.

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.

Dylan Byers at Politico has more:

The AP came under fire earlier this month over an internal memo advising staff to use “couples” or “partners” when referring to civil unions and same-sex marriages, rather than “husband” and “wife.” “Our view is that such terms may be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms… or in quotes attributed to them,” the memo stated. “Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.”

AmericaBlog editor John Aravosis claimed the AP had “banned” the use of the words — (not quite) — but his chief concern was with the indifference to the distinction between “civil unions” and “same-sex marriages.” His friend Janet Kornblum, a former reporter for USA Today and CNET, later weighed in with a post urging the AP to honor the distinction.

“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?” Kornblum wrote. “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.”

The AP was “taking a stand” by “equating legal gay marriages with civil unions and not, well, marriages,” and therefore basically siding with people who are anti-gay marriage,” Kornblum argued.

Tomato, tomahto.  When the AP style guidelines tells you not to use the words husband or wife for legal marriages of gay people, except in the most limited of circumstances, that is a ban as much as “don’t smoke in restaurants except in their outdoor sections” is a smoking ban. In any case, it’s been resolved.

Jennifer Vanasco of the Columbia Journalism Review agrees that it’s the right thing to do:

The Associated Press has consistently excellent coverage of gay and lesbian issues and last week’s misstep seemed out of character (although I know some will disagree with me; not long ago, AP took homophobia out of the stylebook to similar criticism.) I’m happy to see that they listened to their many (correctly angry) critics, including the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, and issued a new stylebook entry that is concise, fair — and truthful. Gay and lesbian couples who are married in the nine states where it’s legal, plus the District of Columbia, are, in fact, entitled to call themselves “husband” or “wife.” It is not a subjective notation, but a descriptive one. And it’s right that the Associated Press says so.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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