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Spousetrap: The Associated Press Maintains Marriage Inequality Style Ruling

Spousetrap: The AP Maintains Marriage Inequality Style Ruling

Earlier this week, The Associated Press caused a stir with the revelation of an internal style memo on how to refer to same-sex married couples. Jim Romanesko published a style guideline that directed AP reporters when they should refer to same-sex spouses as “husbands” or “wives,” but troublingly noted that “Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.”

On Thursday, an AP spokesman stood by the rule, and dishonestly tried to suggest that the wire service’s reporters already use “husband” and “wife,” and that the style ruling simply “reaffirms” that.

The style guideline, as first reported by Romanesko, read:

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 stories with attribution. Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.

That ruling was quickly followed by this update:

UPDATE: AP spokesman Paul Colford writes: “The Monday internal memo you’ve posted [at the bottom of this post] was soon after rewritten and reissued to staff on Monday for greater clarity. You might add the revision, as follows:”

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.

As any reader of English can see, the problematic portion is the one that establishes an unequal standard as a general rule: “Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.”

The style guideline describes the conditions under which a deviation from that general rule “may be used,” specifically “with attribution” or “if those involved have regularly used those terms.”

Conversely, a reader of English understands, if those conditions are not met, then husband and wife “may not be used,” which a reasonable person could conclude constitutes a conditional ban on those terms. Even so, not a single critic I’ve read has characterized the rule as a “ban,” but that didn’t stop AP defender Jeffrey Bloomer from claiming they did, and fighting that straw man:

The outraged blog headline this week is some variation of “Associated Press: ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’ Are for Heterosexual Couples Only.” Others have referred to a “ban” on using “husband” or “wife” to refer to for same-sex couples.

In truth, the AP didn’t ban anything, nor did it say “husband” and “wife” are reserved for opposite-sex couples.

Bloomer does correctly point out that there is no universal agreement among the LGBT community on how to refer to same-sex spouses, but that only serves to demonstrate the silliness of the AP’s rule. There is a very good argument to be made for a separate standard, but this isn’t that argument, and this isn’t that rule.

The first part of their guideline, that “husband” or “wife” should be “used in quotes attributed to them,” is completely meaningless, since every reporter already knows that direct quotes should be delivered accurately. If a man says “This is my Grand überhusband, Phil,” then you report that, without conferring the legal status of “Grand überhusband” on Phil.

By the same token, using husband or wife if “those involved have regularly used those terms” is also a stupid rule. If Wonkette regularly calls Joe Biden their husband, you can’t then report that Joe Biden is Wonkette’s husband.

If the goal is fidelity to fact, then “husband” and “wife” should be used when those terms are legally appropriate, unless the subjects make some reasonable request to the contrary, such as “partners” or “couples.” Equality should be the rule, rather than the exception.

However, if a same-sex couple live in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage, but they consider themselves married, then a faithful reporting of fact would require both designations to be used. For example, “Smith says his husband, whom the state legally recognizes as a domestic partner,” accomplishes the factual task at hand, and after that first reference, the term “husband” can be used for the duration.

Aside from fidelity to fact, such a style guideline would also serve to accurately convey the inequality that still exists, to those who oppose and cherish it alike.

On Thursday, however, the AP elected not to change the rule, or to respond to legitimate criticism of it, and instead issued a craven obfuscation:

AP spokesman Paul Colford told BuzzFeed Thursday evening, “This week’s style guidance reaffirmed AP’s existing practice. We’ve used husband and wife in the past for same-sex married couples and have made clear that reporters can continue to do so going forward.”

Here’s the honest version of that statement: “This week’s style guidance reaffirmed AP’s existing practice. We’ve used husband and wife in the past for same-sex married couples under the narrow conditions laid out in the style ruling, and have made clear that reporters can continue to do so under the narrow conditions laid out in the style ruling going forward.”

I wouldn’t presume to assign a motive to the AP’s response, other than a knee-jerk resistance to admitting that they were wrong, an impulse that increases in relation to the authority of a given body, but which ironically saps that authority. The AP is only the last word in journalism style because we believe it is. They need to act like it.

(h/t Towleroad)

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