Listening Post

Stylebooks: The politics of naming

From "illegal immigrant" to "Islamist", we ask if the media's use of certain words can be a weapon in the war of ideas.

Last Modified: 25 May 2013 13:20
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Journalists are supposed to pick their words carefully and most news organisations have books that spell out the do’s and don’t’s of terminology; what kind of language to use when dealing with contentious topics, and what terms to avoid.

The news business is a minefield of controversial terminology and last month, the news agency the Associated Press called time on one phrase, illegal immigrant.

The reason given was that the word 'illegal' should not be used to describe a person. 'Illegal', according to the AP, should only describe an action, such as living in a country illegally.

AP’s style guide is among the most influential in the news business. The agency provides wire services to thousands of news organisations – 1,400 print outlets in the US alone and 5,000 broadcasters around the world. So when the AP makes a change, it matters: not just for the agency, but for all who subscribe to its services and adopt its language.

After illegal immigrant was dropped from the AP Stylebook, publications including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times followed.

Two days after changing the way it describes undocumented immigrants, the AP then announced it would be revising its use of the term “Islamist”.

The stylebook entry now reads: "An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists."

Just after 9/11, news organisations were changing their use of language. Reuters issued an internal memo about the use of the word ‘terrorist’. The news agency ruled that the word was only to be used if accompanied by quotation marks. After the 2005 bombings in London, the BBC issued new guidance for staff to opt for less-loaded terms than terrorist, like militant or extremist.

Journalists reporting political events have to be careful, because the stories they report are already framed by the language used by those in positions of power.

And in the world of 24-hour news increasingly driven by digital content, some say styleguides may not be as influential as they once were, since social media and citizen journalism are undermining traditional news institutions using new terminology.

So, can controversial media language shape the way we see a story? Can words like "illegal immigrant", "terrorist" and "Islamist" be weapons in a war of ideas? Media style guides under scrutiny with the Listening Post’s Marcela Pizzaro.

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