AP Stylebook Updates Spur Controversy Over Worries of Conservative Censorship

• July 11, 2017 10:36 am


The Associated Press Stylebook, the traditional journalist stylistic handbook for decades, has sparked controversy over new updates that have right-leaning journalists and politicians concerned about potentially biased language.

The AP annually updates its stylebook in the spring to give journalists guidance on style and grammar. These changes are often analyzed and publicized, but the most recent updates have some observers particularly concerned.

Fox News host Shannon Bream on Tuesday listed changes that have some people questioning if the intent is to censor words more likely to be used by conservatives.

"The AP Stylebook tells people to change ‘pro-life' to ‘anti-abortion,'" Bream reported. "‘Militant,' ‘lone wolves,' or ‘attackers,' those are the preferred terms rather than ‘terrorist' or ‘Islamist.' And ‘illegal immigrant' or ‘undocumented,' well those are no longer considered acceptable words."

Dave Hoppe, former chief of staff to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), discussed the importance of language and the AP's changes along with the campaign director at the Center for Progress Action Fund, Emily Tisch Sussman.

"The thing you have to look at is that use of language is a very powerful tool. And to make choices like this, and I think in some cases bias choices like this, is something you have to watch very carefully," Hoppe said. "In extreme cases, this is actually censorship. So one has to be careful and be fair to use the language that both sides like."

One change that seems to be causing the most discussion is the disparity between "pro-life" and "anti-abortion."

Bream read off the change that instead of using "pro-choice" or "pro-abortion," journalists should use "pro-abortion rights." The AP also guides journalists to no longer use the term "abortionists" because it claims that term only refers to people who perform clandestine, or unsafe, abortions.

Bream then asked whether it is possible for language to truly be neutral in any story that raises such controversial and emotional topics.

Sussman said these standards exist so everyone can agree on and be aware of what is being reported.

"It's important to have a distinction if you are anti-abortion, pro-abortion, or pro-choice. There are people who can be anti-abortion and pro-choice, that is possible," Sussman said. "So I think it's important that we have clear guidelines."

"Use the word ‘pro-life,' that is the phrase preferred by people who are pro-life. There's no problem in using it; it's not confusing to people to use it. It's very clear what they mean," Hoppe said. "That you use one set of words as opposed to the other and are told specifically not to use a certain set of words, it seems to me is bias and that's where the power of language can come in to try and turn people's minds and turn their thoughts away."

Sussman disagreed, arguing that it is important to be as specific as possible when talking about emotional issues like abortion and immigration.

"I do think that being anti-abortion is as specific as possible. I don't think that being pro-life is as specific as possible," Sussman said. "That would imply that someone would be pro-life in other contexts like death penalty or health care."

"To choose the language that someone prefers, I don't think is specific," she added. "As culture is moving, our definitions have to evolve as well."

Some other AP guideline amendments include calling migrants or refugees fleeing to Europe "people struggling to enter Europe." The AP also says that journalists should describe people who dispute that the world is warming as either "climate-change doubters" or "those who reject mainstream climate science."