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Associated Press criticized for update to same-sex marriage language

by Nick Tjaardstra nick.tjaardstra@wan-ifra.org | February 15, 2013

The Associated Press clarified its policy on same-sex marriage terminology after the leak of an internal memo that suggested reporters use the terms “couples” or “partners” in lieu of “husband” and “wife.” The memo states:

We were asked how to report about same-sex couples who call themselves “husband” and “wife.” Our view is that such terms may be used in AP stories with attribution. Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.

AP spokesman Paul Colford told journalist and blogger Jim Romenesko, who first published the memo, that the second sentence was later edited to read:

Our view is that such terms may be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms (“Smith is survived by his husband, John Jones”) or in quotes attributed to them.

Despite outrage from gay rights activists, Colford told BuzzFeed Thursday that the policy update is no cause for alarm: “This week’s style guidance reaffirmed AP’s existing practice. We’ve used husband and wife in the past for same-sex married couples and have made clear that reporters can continue going forward.”

True, AP has not shied away from referring to legally married same-sex couples as “husband” and “wife” in the past (examples here and here), but this style change does not encourage reporters to continue doing so. The memo’s last sentence, the source of most of the dissention, seems to beg the replacement of “husband” and “wife” with less politically-charged words, which Gawker called “separate but equal” treatment.

GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, criticized the policy saying that the terms “couples” and “partners” are “absolutely not appropriate to describe same-sex couples who are married, and this sentence seems to be saying that AP actually prefers them.”

Bloggers responded in outrage. John Aravosis of America Blog asserted that “AP is overruling the 9 states and the District of Columbia that have legal marriages for gay couples,” and that they represent “abominable, biased, and yellow journalism.” Blogger John Becker emphasized the double standard of homosexual couples having to “opt in” to the terms “husband” and “wife” whereas legally married straight couples would be given the titles without question.

It is important to note that the memo in no way bans the words “husband” and “wife” in reference to same-sex couples, as some articles allege. Reporters still have freedom to use the words, as AP reporter David Crary said he intends to: “The AP style guidance will have no effect on how I write about legally married same-sex couples,” he wrote to journalist Rex Wockner.

Late last year the source of the journalism style bible announced it would stop using the word “homophobia,” arguing that it connoted mental illness. This change received both positive and negative feedback, whereas this week’s decision was received overwhelmingly with criticism.

Yet amidst the critique, an article in Brow Beat, Slate’s culture blog, welcomes the style change as what it must have been intended, “an effort to provide a consistent guideline where none really exists,” drawing attention to states’ different gay marriage policies.