Recently, I interviewed a trans former sex worker for a career-related article. I made a gaffe or two during our talk, but I didn’t want to do the same in my writing. I was committed to capturing her identity and her work—details integral to the piece—without playing into stigmas and stereotypes.
Yet when I consulted the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook online to make sure I was using the correct terminology, there were no relevant entries for trans coverage. Instead, I found a single entry for “prostitute,” a word advocates have been trying to get the AP to toss out and replace with “sex worker” since 2014.
In today’s political climate, writing consciously, accurately, and with empathy is more important than ever. Yet the go-to standards often come up short. It’s time to reframe our approach and the guides we look to for direction.
Moving beyond a single source of truth
Language is constantly in flux, filtering up from various industries, communities, subcultures, and media into common parlance. So even though the AP has made some effort to be more inclusive—like deciding earlier this year to capitalize “Black” when referring to race—it’s still not always the best source to consult for every story.
“I use the AP style guide all the time, and I think it’s very useful,” said Kristin Gliger, executive director of the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University. “[But] it can’t do everything for everybody, you know? It would be the Oxford English Dictionary if it did.”
Writers may have more success turning to specialized guides for different topics. Gilger, who is responsible for updating the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Style Guide, saw this firsthand when she was tasked with creating a broad set of recommendations to help journalists write about disability with sensitivity.
“At one point, ours had gotten unwieldy. We were starting [to become] almost a medical style guide,” Gliger said.“We actually trimmed things back … so our style guide is specifically aimed at covering disability.”
Moving away from a single source of truth could also affect the way professionals think about journalism standards.
“Style guides are usually treated as rules, rather than guidance,” explained copyeditor Alex Kapitan, who manages the Radical Copyeditor blog and wrote a “Style Guide For Writing About Transgender People” there. “This practice treats language as if there is a single ‘correct’ way to use it. But that’s not how language works, and that’s not how style guides are meant to work either.”
Finding specialized style guides (there are more than you think)
Now that we can take long-established style guides off their pedestals a bit, writers should get in the habit of seeking out guides based on the topics, communities, or identities they’re writing about. This is especially true if you’re covering communities or identities other than your own.
The Asian American Journalist Association, National Association of Black Journalists, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists all have style guidelines on their websites. The Native American Journalist Association offers downloadable PDF reporting guides related to specific events or legislation, as well as a pre-punched snap-in supplement for physical AP Stylebooks.
Additional resources include:
- The Conscious Style Guide, which trades the encyclopedic format for a searchable compendium of language-related articles and guides from all over the internet
- The Diversity Style Guide, a searchable compilation of terms pulled from other guides with links back to the original sources
- The Stylebook Supplement on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Terminology, which was created by NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists
- The National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Style Guide, for words and terms related to physical and mental disabilities
- The Progressive’s Style Guide, from SumOfUs, an anti-corporate 501(c)4 nonprofit, which covers everything from food justice to ancestry to sex work
- Self’s internal guide to more inclusive language
- Buzzfeed’s style guide, which blends AP style with recommendations from the Conscious Style Guide and other sources
Chances are, you’re your own style police
Looking beyond your battered copy of the AP Stylebook requires more effort, but it’s especially critical in today’s media landscape, where there are fewer safeguards against publishing something that misses the mark—and a good chance you’ll get cancelled if you do.
“Freelancers are expected to do more and more, and there’s less and less oversight, because everyone’s getting fired,” said Mary Phillips-Sandy, a New York-based consultant who worked on the style guide for Comedy Central’s digital division. “Having that awareness built into your toolbox is great—at least knowing that these resources exist, and [that] you can turn to them if you need them.”
But with so many guides to choose from, how do you know which ones to trust?
“No style guide can be everything to everyone, and I think those that purport to be able to do that are wrong,” Phillips-Sandy said. “If you’re looking at these sort of specialized guides that focus on a particular issue … you want it to acknowledge its own limitations [and] how things have changed.”
Instead of relying on them solely for clear rulings on grammar and word choice, let them inspire further questions: How will my word choice resonate with readers from a particular background? Are there any stereotypes that my language might reinforce? How does my source identify? (And as Phillips-Sandy pointed out, always identify sources using the titles and pronouns they prefer, regardless of what your preferred style guide recommends.)
This interactive process can help you write a better story—and become a more critical thinker and ethical wordsmith moving forward.
“Conscious and sensitive language is not a recipe of the best words to use or the most ‘correct’ way to speak and write,” Kapitan said. “Rather, it’s a practice of paying attention to the values and norms that are baked into language, and working to use language in ways that describe (and thus create) a world free from oppression and violence in all of its forms.”
Ruth Terry is a Black and Puerto Rican freelancer based in Istanbul who writes about the intersections of race, culture, travel, and wellness.
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Photo Credit: Dmitry Volkov