Debating the new Associated Press Stylebook, round two

At this point, I still do not have a copy of the new Associated Press Stylebook, the 2014 edition with the chapter dedicated to issues in mainstream religion-news coverage. I think I will hold out for the spiral edition, which makes it so much easier to work with when writing, because you can open it up next to your keyboard and it stays open. Where do get one of those these days, since Amazon only sells the paperback?

That said, I am really enjoying some of the online debates about the contents. You can see some of the battle lines in the comments after our initial post by Bobby Ross, Jr. Click here to catch up on that.

However, you can really sense some of the tensions in this short online piece at The Atlantic, written by Emma Green. This is not a news piece, of course, but it is an article directly related to the craft of religion-beat work, so I wanted to point our readers toward it. It also reminded me of something.

Long ago, as in the early 1990s, I heard a nationally known religion writer turned scholar opine that the true purpose of improved religion-beat coverage in the mainstream media was to promote diversity and pluralism in modern America, thus “undercutting Judeo-Christian hegemony.”

Wait for it.

As in, wait until you check out the comments thread at the end of The Atlantic piece. But first, here’s a key chunk or two for starters:

When The Atlantic was revising its style guide for the web a few months ago, my cubicle unexpectedly turned into a metaphysical brawling zone. Our house policy is to capitalize “God” when it refers to the entity worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (Other times, it’s not capitalized — for example, when writing about how I’m the “god of the office candy jar.”) In my opinion, this suggests a belief on the part of the writer: Capitalizing “God” means he or she believes in the formal existence of a thing called god, so that name is capitalized like any other name. My boss disagrees. Neither, he says, does capitalizing the protagonist’s name from The Big Lebowski entail belief in the existence of the Dude. So we capitalize God.

Interested? Carry on, because that thought leads straight to the new AP book:

… (J)ust imagine how weird things got at the Associated Press when the organization decided to add 200 new religion terms to its 2014 style guide. Unfortunately for me, they’ve come down on my boss’s side on the subject of “God” capitalization. They also note that it’s proper to use lowercase “in references to false gods: He made money his god.”

The Associated Press has declared that there are false gods. I can’t wait to see what happens when they have to cover a story about a strangely gold-tinted calf who shows up in the desert in Egypt.

Other notables: “hell” is not capitalized, but “Hades” is — presumably, the reason being that the latter is a place, but the former is not.

You can see the trends. She notes that “Voodoo” the religion is upper-case, but “voodoo” the historic form of Republican economic theory is not. And how does one spell Chanukah, Hannukka, Hanukah, “Hanukkah”? Not that there is a direct connection, but I am hoping for a consistent spelling, someday, of al Qaeda, Al Qaeda, al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda.

But the status of the Judeo-Christian God is clearly the hot issue here. Thus, the essay ends like this:

Perhaps the trickiest of all is the entry for Jesus, who is described as “the central figure of Christianity.” The philosophical twist is in the pronouns; unlike prayerbooks or the Bible, which refer to him as Him, the AP instructs newspapers that “personal pronouns referring to him are lowercase, as is savior.” If Jesus is in the news, he can be the “Son of God” or the “Redeemer” (both capitalized). But when it comes to pronouns, the AP says, he’s a “he,” just like any mortal man.

Comments? I mean, does anyone have comments about the journalism angles in all of this?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Some interesting conundrums here. Yet there are people who would consider the debates here totally unimportant. However, there are some experts on language who argue that when one controls the language of a culture one controls what people think. And since virtually every media writer and outlet follows the AP Stylebook, that gives the AP tremendous power over the thinking in our culture–even to the point of affecting our culture’s religious outlook.

  • Parableman

    I’m having trouble seeing how ‘redeemer’ and ‘savior’ are different enough to justify different policies for each. They are both common nouns. Neither is a proper name. They are even synonyms.

    • Julia B

      I was wondering the same thing.

    • helen

      They are alternative titles when referring to Christ.

      • Parableman

        The reason I don’t see them as titles is that titles attach to the beginning, e.g. “King Jesus”. It’s not like that. It’s also not a proper name, e.g. “Yahweh”. The name “God” functions like a proper name. I don’t see these descriptions doing that, the way “Messiah/Christ” ended up doing as the title morphed into a proper name even before the NT was completed. I don’t see any biblical use of “Savior” or “Redeemer” as a name, and the uses that come close to that later on don’t strike me as being nearly as proper name-ish as a title like “Christ”.

        That makes me think neither should be capitalized as a proper name, but certainly we shouldn’t capitalize one and not the other, as the AP is recommending. I’m not sure why they see these as any different from each other.

        • helen

          Not being a writer for AP I will continue to capitalize them both and wince when I read them in lower case in reference to Jesus Christ.
          But then, I capitalize the referent pronouns, too. Older Bibles did.

    • John Pack Lambert

      In references to Jesus Christ they are used as proper nouns. In Christian speak they function as alternate names. “Oh Divine Redeemer” is about Jesus, and most Christians know this, even if they know nothing of the song. The same massive use comes with “Saviour”.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/filmchat Peter T Chattaway

    Re: “unlike prayerbooks or the Bible, which refer to him as Him…”

    Which Bible is she talking about? I just checked three translations at BibleGateway.com (the KJV, the RSV and the NIV) and none of them capitalized these pronouns. If memory serves, the introduction to the NIV even made a point of saying that there was no capitalization of these pronouns because there was no such distinction in the original Greek (so why impose one in English?).

  • Matt

    Green’s consternation notwithstanding, the AP seems to mostly keep to the simple principle of not capitalizing a word in order to emphasize it as an honorific, but to capitalize it if it is actually a proper noun.
    “God” is a proper noun in the monotheistic faiths (less commonly for Jews, who tend to leave out the vowel, and Muslims, who tend to transliterate rather than translate “Allah,” but still appropriately) but a common noun otherwise.
    “Hades” is a proper noun (the eponymous domain of a Greek god), while “hell” is not.
    “Son of God” is a title that is appropriately treated as a proper noun, while capitalizing “Him” is simply a show of respect on the part of the writer that is not becoming for a reporter.

  • Julia B

    I wonder – how is this handled in Germany. I’m not conversant in German, but I understand that it capitalizes lots of nouns that we don’t in English.
    Is there a difference between savior and The Savior? Otherwise, I don’t get why there is (the) Son of God and (the) savior.

    • wlinden

      German capitalizes any and all nouns. As Mark Twain noted, this enables you to recognize a noun immediately.

  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

    Just to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks :-) … AP style on use of Jr. or Sr.:

    junior, senior

    Abbreviate as Jr. and Sr. only with full names of persons or animals. Do not precede by a comma: Martin Luther King Jr.


    On use of uppercase personal pronouns for God and Jesus, we made the decision when I got to the Christian Chronicle in 2005 to follow AP style and use lowercase personal pronouns. My major argument was that following the non-AP uppercase style was so hit and miss … folks would remember to uppercase some pronouns, but then there’d be others where style wasn’t followed in the same story. So we decided to err on the side of consistency.

    • Julia B

      wlinden & bobby ross: Maybe the Germans decided to err on the Side of Consistency by capitalizing all Nouns. LOL


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