There comes a time when some journalists feel they must dissent from the prevailing winds of their occupation, and I’ve finally reached that point.
My concern comes from a piece in the National Catholic Register on how new terms describing abortion handed down by the Associated Press –- the standard bearer for American journalism –- have made this new normal something I can no longer follow.
The Associated Press or AP, for those of you not employed by news organizations, sets the correct titles and grammar for work in American journalism. Everyone follows whatever AP decides something should be called, using the evolving standards of the Associated Press Stylebook.
Until now. Typically, AP leaders have tried to avoid taking sides in the abortion and gender debates. However, their most recent rules makes it quite impossible for some journalists — including myself — to cover this complicated topic the way AP insists that we cover it.
In the past, for example, journalists argued about calling activists on one side “anti-abortion,” as opposed to “pro-life,” while those on the other side were given a label they welcomed, as in “pro-choice.” That second label evolved into “pro-abortion rights.” We will come back to that.
Now this. From the Register:
The Associated Press (AP) issued new guidelines advising reporters not to use the terms “crisis pregnancy center” or “pregnancy resource center” but to instead refer to centers that offer pro-life counseling and support as “anti-abortion centers.”
Reporters should “avoid potentially misleading terms such as pregnancy resource centers or pregnancy counseling centers,” because “these terms don’t convey that the centers’ general aim is to prevent abortions,” according to the AP’s Abortion Topical Guide.
The changes were made last November but are just getting publicized now. And these centers –- CPCs –aren’t just there to prevent abortions, which anyone who walks into one soon discovers. In the vast majority of cases there are storage rooms containing shelves of diapers, baby clothes, cribs, strollers, infant (and child) car seats, you name it. Many offer free ultrasound tests.
In its updated guidance, the AP states that though the centers provide “counseling, material support and/or housing,” because their purpose is to “divert or discourage women from having abortions” they should be labeled “anti-abortion centers.”
With that sort of logic, abortion clinics should be termed “anti-birth centers,” or some other similar attempt at a neutral term. Right? No, AP says those institutions should be given their term of choice — women’s health clinics.
Moreover, if the reporter does discuss crisis pregnancy centers, that title should be framed in scare quotes.
The AP instructs reporters to frame the abortion debate as “anti-abortion” or “abortion rights” and to not use the term “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”
Reporters are also advised not to talk about a fetal heartbeat when referring to laws that ban abortion after a detectable heartbeat. Rather, the guide says, they should use the term “cardiac activity” as “the embryo isn’t yet a fetus and it has only begun forming a rudimentary heart.”
The anti-abortion/abortion-rights lingo has been in place for years (I’m guessing at least 30) with AP. I still think that is unfair, in that one side gets a the negative “anti” tagged to its cause and the other one gets a positive “rights” tag. Guess which one sounds more attractive?
But, as noted earlier, that wording was actually a compromise in that some publications were using the terms “pro-choice” for one side and “anti-abortion” for the other, granting the former an ideological title and the latter an issues title. Way back in the beginning days of abortion coverage, news publications tended to use the titles each side preferred, which were “pro-life” and “pro-choice.”
But here is the key point. Journalists usually attempt to let groups choose their own titles.
Until abortion coverage entered the picture and all of a sudden we got “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion.” Why not “pro-abortion”? People on that side of the debate insisted that, in most cases, they were not “pro” abortion — they were just for the right to have an abortion.
There were other word games. Someone who treats dental issues is called a dentist. Someone who treats foot issues is called a podiatrist. Someone who performs abortions should be an abortionist, right? No, said AP, because it “connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions.” So, there’s always been this huge effort to not attach any scandal to the word “abortion.”
The subtle transitions in speech in our media aren’t just about abortion. I cite the clever transition from “liberal” to “progressive,” the latter being a judgment call on one side being forward-looking and progressing onward. And the opposing team would be “regressive”? I don’t use “progressive” in my articles as it is loading the deck.
But I digress. I called up the actual page on the AP site and sure enough, there is a new “abortion topical guide” posted. In the previous (2012 and 2022) stylebooks, AP devoted six or seven lines to the topic. Now it’s a small treatise.
AP has erased the phrase “late-term abortion,” or even the accurate medical term “third-trimester abortion,” instead telling reporters to use “abortion later in pregnancy” which is more vague. That appears to be the goal.
I mean, God forbid that we say what abortion truly is. Remember the uproar over feminist Naomi Wolfe’s essay for The New Republic over the fact that abortion always involves a death (of the child)? To pretend that abortion is anything other, she wrote, leads to “a series of fibs, self-delusions and evasions” about the harsh truth that abortion takes a human life; something the mothers of these children know deep in their souls but aren’t allowed to talk about.
Not a whole lot has changed since then in terms of rhetoric. There has been little coverage of this AP style change except in the Catholic media and the Daily Signal, which said AP made the change the week of Nov. 20-27. And the AP is definitely backing this new term, as shown by this Feb. 5 story with “anti-abortion centers” in the headline.
Remember the Orwellian doctrine: Those who control the language control the masses and what they think. Those of us who use language in our work are quite aware of how our words frame a story. The insertion or deletion of just a few words shifts meanings and propels the reader into a different direction. Journalists know this.
As Plato said, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” Whoever controls the narrative, controls the culture.
Which is why I’m equally unhappy with the other matter the Register brought up in a separate article:
The AP additionally devotes an entire section in the revised style guide to transgender sports, warning writers not to “misgender or imply doubt” about transgender athletes, specifically males competing in women’s sports. For example, the guide bars writers from using the phrase “former men’s swimmer,” directing them to say that transgender players “are banned from playing on teams in line with their gender.”
In other words, use the language that has been chosen by the “good” people in this debate, while erasing language linked to inconvenient information or arguments used by “bad” people on the other side.
Thus, the supposedly even-handed AP style book now takes philosophical stands on gender issues while pretending to be an objective style guide. The 2012 volume didn’t even contain a “gender” reference. The 2022 book devotes six pages to it. One sentence particularly sticks out:
“A person’s sex and gender are usually assigned at birth by parents or attendants and can turn out to be inaccurate … avoid references to a transgender person being born a boy or girl, or phrasing like birth gender, Sex (or gender) assigned at birth is the accurate terminology.”
Does DNA and biology have anything to do with this? To be sure, large sectors of our society have embraced these new doctrines. When signing my child into Seattle Children’s Hospital, I am obligated to mark the gender she was “assigned at birth.” If I balk, I can’t log her into their computer system.
After awhile, one gets tired of pretending that people are “assigned” a gender rather than having DNA. Let’s face it, if I was entering journalism today, I might have a really short career. Or I’d have to choose a beat where this issue would not come up.
It’s truly getting crazy out there. Call up APstylebook.com if you don’t believe me. Read what they have to say about using the word “female.”
Female, woman: Revised guidance noting that some people object to the use of female as a descriptor for women because it can be seen as emphasizing biology and reproductive capacity over gender identity. It can also sometimes carry misogynistic tones that may vary in severity by race, class and other factors.
One begins to wonder: Who wrote this stuff? Now we can’t use the word “female” in our copy?
All these decisions have religious and moral implications, noted the Register, since Catholic teaching is that a person’s gender and sex is inherent to his or her very being and it cannot be changed. It is not “assigned” or switched at will. Believers in traditional forms of other world religions would agree.
This tinkering with reality by AP bodes ill for journalists not willing bow to these new teachings about gender, sexuality, abortion procedures and the nature of reality itself. I do wonder what will happen to those not willing to go along: Submit stories without bylines on them? Change beats? Walk off the job?
There comes a time to mull over these things and that time is now.
I’m glad I’m in the twilight of my career where the costs of such choices is low. I pity those people of conscience for whom it is not. We are going to end up with newsrooms that are even less diverse — in terms of culture and beliefs — than what we have right now.