Last week, the Associated Press deserved the criticism it received when it adapted the official AP Stylebook to exclude the phrase “illegal immigrant.” Arguing the world “illegal” can only describe an action, the AP instead mandated writers use “living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.”
The change affects hundreds of newspapers across the country, as AP Style is the industry standard for journalism.
This is not the first time the AP has tried to enforce political correctness. In 1986, the AP revised the Stylebook to say this: “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.”
The Associated Press should not serve as the arbiter of truth and acceptable speech. Though AP Style can ensure professionalism and clarity in articles, this trend toward speech regulation should cause us alarm.
In Britain, the government has also been toying with the idea of regulating the press. A new proposal would create a “National Press Regulator” (NPR) that could impose fines for poor conduct.
Prompting this new law was the revelation that, in 2006, journalists had hacked phones and bribed policemen to gain information. Though these abuses are worrisome, the offenders should be held accountable through current laws. Crossing the line of speech regulation is a step down a dangerous path.
The Economist agrees, saying,
“For us, the choice is clear: we believe society gains more from a free press than it loses from the tabloids’ occasional abuse of defenceless people.”
In the United States, a current controversy reflects the importance of a free press. Jana Winter, a Fox News reporter, could face jail time after refusing to reveal the source of a story about the notebook of James Holmes, the shooter in the Aurora movie theater massacre.
In her affidavit to the court, Winter eloquently argues,
“If I am forced to reveal the identities of persons whom I have promised to shield from public exposure, simply put, I will be unable to function effectively in my profession, and my career will be over. As such, my free speech rights, as well as those of my sources, will be chilled.”
According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism report on the State of the News Media (2013), media organizations are suffering. Cutbacks in staff have resulted in some organizations turning to automated reporting, with technology turning data into news stories.
The average story length has also shrunk, indicating a trend toward shallow overview pieces rather than in-depth analyses. The report picks up on another important trend, saying,
“At the same time, newsmakers and others with information they want to put into the public arena have become more adept at using digital technology and social media to do so on their own, without any filter by the traditional media.”
The Economist echoes the report, recognizing that media organizations are relying more on articles and opinions from outside sources, such as think tanks or guest contributors.
If the purpose of news articles is to be inoffensive and politically correct, then the news organizations should continue accepting the stringent AP guidelines. They will continue to see their readership decline in the information age, as bloggers and online contributors fill the void of investigative reporting.
If, however, media’s role is to expose truth and uncover secrecy, the organizations should resist efforts toward speech regulation and keep fighting for a free press.
Danny Huizinga | Baylor University | @HuizingaDanny