What will the Associated Press do?

AP stylebook coverOne of the reasons some editors and reporters shy away from reporting about religious issues is because their ignorance on the topic can cause outrage among readers. You get a businessman’s name wrong and you run a correction. Get a detail wrong about Mennonites and you field angry calls from Pennsylvania for weeks. Connie Coyne, the reader advocate for the Salt Lake Tribune, deals with an example of this in her column this week:

This e-mail is typical of one we receive about the use of religious titles in articles dealing with members of the clergy:

“I am writing in regard to the nice article you wrote titled ‘Orthodox Christians get ready for Easter.’

“It was an informative article and many of us of the Orthodox faith enjoyed it very much. In the article you mentioned [Father] Kouremetis with his proper title.

“This was fine. The second time you mentioned his name you referred to him as Kouremetis. Totally out of line.

“He should be referred to as Father at all times. Men of the cloth should be referred to with respect. In another one of your articles ‘St. Peter’s marks 500th anniversary,’ you referred to Pope Benedict XVI. Later you referred to him as Benedict at the start of the next paragraph. Please show a little more respect when referring to other religious leaders. This not nit-picking, it’s just respect of the cloth.”

The first time I wrote about a religious topic, I covered an extremely controversial issue. But one of the oddest things I got hate mail about was not keeping the honorific for the man about whom I wrote. It wasn’t my fault, actually. It was Wall Street Journal style. Coyne explains how it works:

We understand that certain religious traditions have unique ways of referring to their individual clergy.

To use all those titles in The Salt Lake Tribune regularly would confuse readers who did not understand the nuances of the individual religions.

We use The Associated Press Stylebook for guidance on the titles. . . .

The AP holds that the first reference to a clergy person should include a capitalized title, usually “the Rev.” before the person’s name. On second reference “to members of the clergy, use only a last name: the Rev. Billy Graham on first reference, Graham on second.” . . .

While many churches have special ways of referring to their clergy, all of them must be treated fairly. If we gave special treatment to, say, Catholics, then Baptists would be upset. By treating everyone with an even hand, we can deliver the news without favoring any one religion.

Coyne chose an excellent topic to cover in her column, one that explains how journalists handle religious issues differently than devout laity. The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking of how newspapers are responding to requests and demands of certain Muslims about how to handle their religion in print. We had some Muslims threatening to kill editors for printing cartoon images of Muhammad — and most newspapers being scared into submission. And we had Comedy Central air a cartoon that blasphemes Jesus by showing him defecating on others while blacking out an image of Mohammed carrying a football helmet. But in the months since some Muslims took their battles to the newsprint, nothing has struck me so much as this BBC policy:

Peace Be Upon Him
Throughout the BBC’s section on Islam you will see Peace be upon Him or (pbuh) after the name Muhammad.

Muslims say Peace be upon Him after every mention of Muhammad’s name, as a mark of respect. Muslims do the same when they write the Prophet’s name, adding pbuh.

The Arabic transliteration of Peace be upon Him is sallallahu alayhi wa sallam which is usually abbreviated as saw.

Use of pbuh on bbc.co.uk/religion
The BBC uses the pbuh in the Islam section out of courtesy, and we would do the same for any other religion if they had a similar phrase that was universally used as a sign of respect.

What do you think? Is the BBC method — should it be expanded to other religions — the way to go? Should newspapers always refer to G-d in stories about the Jewish religion? Should Jesus’ name be fleshed out to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Or is the Associated Press method the way to go?

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  • Jeff

    The funny thing is that I wrote a letter to the editor of my local paper over a similar article (Orthodox Christians Get Ready for Easter) – however, the article I was referring to was “Orthodox Christians Celebrate Easter” where for space reasons my local paper didn’t want to fit Christians in and so changed the word to Sect.

    There you have it. Orthodoxy is a sect. I guess since it has amazingly become smaller than the Anglican Communion, that is what qualified it.

  • James G.

    I’d much prefer the AP method. Let the adherents add Most Holy Vicar or Peace be Upon Him in their own writings; there is no reason to require the press to do so. When reading such a reference as pbuh it seems not to be objective. It would seem even more so in broadcast journalism. How would the public react to say, Katie Couric, saying pbuh in a story on Islam?

    (Full disclosure: I’m a “man of the clothe” myself.)

  • James G.

    Fully aware, too, of my mispelling “cloth”. Doh!

  • Eric Phillips

    The AP method is much better. We want religion writers to be _knowledgeable_ about their subject, not to pretend to be pious _practitioners_ of each religion they cover. The objective journalistic tone is much more natural and honest than some “this week I’m Muslim, next week I’ll be Serbian Orthodox” hat-changing routine.

  • http://hairouna.livejournal.com Discernment

    It seems you’re talking about two entirely different things.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen the BBC use the abbreviation pbuh after Muhammad’s name in any of their online news articles. And they used his name quite a lot during that cartoon row. Just look at this article (and the others related to it) and you’ll see.

    Remember: the BBC isn’t just a news service. Its television channels and radio stations carry a lot of programming other than news. That BBC policy you highlighted is for the use of Muhammad’s name only in the BBC’s section on the religion of Islam. In fact, the same page you linked to says this: “When the site refers to the Prophet on pages that are not in the Islam section, we do not use the phrase.”

    So while I suppose the issue you raise is still a good one, it should be noted that it isn’t “the BBC method” of dealing with religion news.

  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Michael Rew

    I consider it inappropriate for anyone to call Jesus “our Lord and Savior” if that person has not accepted Him as Lord and Savior. It is true that Jesus is the unsaved’s Savior, regardless of whether that person has accepted Him (although some Calvinists would disagree with me), and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, regardless of whether one is saved (Romans 14:11). But I would prefer it if news coverage simply referred to Him as Jesus, Christ, or Jesus Christ.

  • Matt

    I heard a reporter on BBC radio’s World Report say ‘peace be upon him’ during a report on something or orther a couple of months ago. All I thought was that the reporter was muslim, and then I ignored everything else he said.

  • Melissa

    The relationship between secular media and topics of religion and faith is a difficult one to navigate. Both sides often have trouble understanding where the other is coming from. Like the “sect” issue above, it’s obvious to me that the wrong word was chosen, but many well-meaning and busy people at a newspaper, television station, etc., may not think anything of it because of their lack of familiarity with Christianity, Orthodoxy or just religion in general. I think the word choice was terrible and was definitely worth pointing out to the paper, in a nice way of course. From the outside, mistakes often seem like an affront to the faith itself, as if the newspaper/etc. has no respect for the faith, but this may not be true.)

    The BBC policy seems well-meaning but entirely wrong, though. I am a Christian who works at a newspaper, and I am SO glad for a simple guide like the AP stylebook for handling such information in stories. It’s also best to keep a dialogue going between the media and the public, and for people from both sides to not jump to conclusions.

    A related example (regarding conclusion-jumping): Before the most recent presidential election, during campaigning season, I ran a small story in a lifestyles section featuring a cookie recipe from Laura Bush and one from Teresa Heinz Kerry, with accompanying photos. I made a point to keep the photos the exact same size, so as not to appear to play favorites. We got a phone call, though, from a woman who said she and others had laughed at our pettiness of making one of the photos so much nicer than the other, obviously favoring one presidential candidate more than the other. One included a glass of milk, and the other a teacup, which was prettier than the glass of milk. These pictures were from a magazine, sent via the Associated Press. They were both only about a half-column wide, and I made sure both had a nice display of cookies.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    I see that the BBC’s page on the Passion of Christ doesn’t capitalize the pronouns when referring to Jesus, which seems to me like the most obvious equivalent of putting “(pbuh)” after Mohammed’s name.

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    The prayer of blessings for the Prophet is a duty for those who believe, not for others. It’s kinda nice on a ‘fluffy religion’ page at the BBC but I certainly would not make it policy.

  • Stephen A.

    I vote for AP style, too. It’s proper news format, and while it can be jarring to some who aren’t in the profession or who isn’t a regular reader of newspapers or new mags, after a while, a reader expects it.

    As for pbuh, it’s amazing what a little fear will do to someone’s approach to writing – and this is surely out of fear, at least fear of a Muslim taking offence. If the BBC does this on a regular basis, they SHOULD capitalize He/Him for Christ and do the same for other religious figures. But I doubt they will.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Just an aside about style problems–I keep seeing the word “Easter” used in stories about Orthodox Christians (including here). BUT many Eastern Orthodox object to the word Easter as a derivitave from some pagan god or godess and get very upset at its regular use among Western Christians let alone being used to label their celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. (Pascha is the word I believe they use).

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    Fear *snort*. I’m sorry Stephen but hardly! Do you know how many news services refers to the Prophet *without* using the salutation? How come they are so brave? It’s just political correctness.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    By the way, I’m just now reading a translation of Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s letter to GW Bush. In the second paragraph, he refers to “Jesus Christ (PBUH)”.

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    Yes, Muslims are encouraged to pronounce blessings upon all the Prophets’ names – from Adam to John the Baptist and even Mary the mother of Jesus, peace be upon them all.