Lovers and labels in coverage of same-sex marriage ruling (updated)

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Update: Yikes! One of the drawbacks of media-criticism-on-the-go is the possibility of writing a post that, in retrospect, makes you sound really stupid.

Such is the case with this one, which prompted reader Sarah Morriss to comment:

You do know that “Virginia is for lovers” is the tourism and travel slogan used by the Commonwealth of VA, and thus the headline is likely a play on that, no?

Nope. I didn’t know that. But a quick Google search finds a Wikipedia entry describing the slogan as “one of the most iconic ad campaigns in the past 50 years.” Uh, somehow I missed it.

That does put the headline in a different light, although one could argue that not all readers nationally would understand the play on words.

My original post appears below.

* * *

Virginia marriage is for all lovers

Let’s take a quiz and see if you can guess the source of the above message:

A. Sign at a gay-rights rally.

B. Slogan for a same-sex marriage campaign.

C. Headline on an Associated Press news story.

If you picked C, you would be mostly correct. This is the actual headline on AP’s story on a federal appeals court ruling Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional Monday:

U.S. court: Virginia marriage is for all lovers

Even attributing that statement to the court, the headline still strikes me as a doozy, especially given that the 98-page ruling never uses the word “lover.” The term “same-sex” does appear 151 times, along with 321 references to “marriage,” and other major news organizations stuck with more journalistically neutral headlines.

Appeals court upholds decision overturning Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban (Washington Post)

Appeals panel strikes down Virginia gay marriage ban (USA Today)

Appeals Panel Rejects Virginia Gay-Marriage Ban (New York Times)

Appeals court strikes down Va. same-sex marriage ban (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Appeals court rejects Virginia same-sex marriage ban (CNN)

Not a lot of creativity in those headlines, granted. But not a lot of editorializing either.

The headline isn’t the only place the AP story hints at bias. The wire service quotes an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and sees no need to label the group. The same can’t be said of the story’s treatment of a legal group that supported Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage:

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Whoa! Religion chapter added to AP Stylebook

Big news for Godbeat style geeks: The Associated Press Stylebook — the journalist’s Bible — has added a religion chapter.

The Poynter Institute reports:

The 2014 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook comes out Wednesday, with about 200 changes and additions, including a new chapter devoted to religion, updates to social media terms, weather terms and the chapter on food.

Some of those additions include (sic)MERS and Buffalo wings, “B is capitalized in Buffalo,” said Sally Jacobsen, AP Stylebook editor, in a phone interview with Poynter. (AP puts the word “selfie” on the edition’s cover.)

“The key thing is the new chapter on religion,” she said. “We have 208 entries in that chapter.”

AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll reported those entries out for the Stylebook editors, speaking with religious scholars, communication specialists within denominations and AP reporters in different regions, including Jerusalem and Haiti. The goal is to be respectful to the groups themselves, to listen to them, Zoll told Poynter in a phone interview, but ultimately to be clear for the journalists for whom the book is made.

The Stylebook changes and grows with both language and culture, and this year, the new religion chapter includes an entry on Coptic Christians, for instance, and a more detailed entry on Easter, which acknowledges that not everyone using the Stylebook may be familiar with the holiday.

AP itself notes:

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Define ‘Islamist’ and please be specific

Last week, the people who produce the Associated Press Stylebook issued a few revisions. One of them was for the term “Islamist.” It used to read:

Supporter of government in accord with the laws of Islam. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.

That entry was only added last year. In response, the Council on American-Islamic Relations actually called for the AP to drop the use of the term. GetReligion authors have long spoken out against the use of the term as imprecise shorthand for “Muslims who are not liberal.” Here’s tmatt banging that drum in a piece from last year “Define Islamist: Give Three Examples“:

I’ve read this story several times and, to me, it seems that it is impossible to make any sense out of it without a working definition of “Islamist.” The problem is that the story does not contain a definition. It is also missing a clear set of facts about what Islamists say they believe or what changes in Egyptian society they are seeking.

Thus, “Islamist” is left as a kind of buzz word that, essentially, means “really religious Muslims who are competing against liberals and leftists.” We also know that they are clashing with the troubled land’s predominately secular (whatever that means in an Islamic nation) military leaders.

So correct me if I’m wrong, tmatt, but you have to think the revision to the Stylebook is a step in the right direction. Here’s how it reads now:

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.

Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.

An improvement, certainly. In addition to being specific about the group affiliations, though, what we really need are specifics about the doctrines in play.

I do have one thought about this term, which is that I do think it builds in some bias about what makes for the “right” kind of Islam. It is common for folks to assume a sort of universality to whatever environment they grew up in. There is an attempt by some media professionals to try to understand Islam in terms of how Christians or Jews (or secular or other folks living under the influence of legal systems heavily influenced by same) order their public and private lives. This leads to an impoverished view of Islam that downplays the lack of distinction between mosque and state.

One of the reasons why this revision is good is because it shows how many different Muslims — and certainly not just radicals — advocate reordering society in accordance with sharia. But one of the reasons why the revision is lacking is because it makes it seem like this is not necessarily inherent to Islam. If one is going to take sides on that doctrinal debate, I think there’s at least a strong argument to be made that what we call “Islamism” might  be more accurately called “Islam.”

I’m not arguing that journalists should take sides on the debate but recognize how we frame adherence to Muslim teachings. And once that realization is made — that Islam isn’t just a different regional version of Christianity or Judaism — and that it has particular and unique approaches to how religion and politics blend — then we can have a more meaningful discussion about how different groups interpret that central tenet of Islam. Otherwise, we only talk about it when it appears in a negative light or is perpetuated by the guys that are portrayed as the really bad guys.

So even more important than getting the affiliations spelled out, let’s make sure we talk about the doctrines in play and how they are interpreted by various groups.

I was reminded to write about this Stylebook issue because of an AP story I read this weekend headlined “Hamas shaves heads of Gaza youths with long hair.”

Note, no “Islamist.”

Instead we learned of “Islamic militants latest attempt to impose their hardline version of Islam on Gaza.” Early on:

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