For the 117th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, Fred Vultee explains how the Associated Press Stylebook’s treatment of Islam has changed over time.
Fred Vultee is an associate professor of journalism at Wayne State University. He studies news practices and their impact on audiences, particularly on understandings of national and societal security.
Featured image: Associated Press Stylebook, by R. Nial Bradshaw (CC BY 2.0)
Fred Vultee: We’re going back and looking at what’s happening in the world while this is going on: What are the traces we see from it later in how we practice news, how we talk about this, how we’re – our textbooks talk about matters like that?”
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew – and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of woman in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together, we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
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There aren’t many rules of journalism. We have lots of guidelines about how to write strong stories, principles like verification and doctrine like objectivity.
We also have codes of ethics. But many of these things vary from publication to publication and are open to interpretation in various scenarios. But the stuff in the AP Stylebook, those are rules. As any student in an Intro to Reporting course can tell you, there’s right and there’s wrong. There’s no interpretation. Or is there? As we’ve seen in recent years with big changes to the rules in that stylebook, the rules can change.
They’re constantly being negotiated through journalistic practice. And so, all of this begs the question, “How are these rules even made to begin with, and what’s the effect as they change over time?” Discussing this with me today is Dr. Fred Vultee, associate professor of journalism at Wayne State University.
Fred explains how the stylebook’s treatment of concepts specifically surrounding Islam have changed over time. And he tells us a little bit about what that means about the relationship between journalism and society. Fred, welcome to the show. So why don’t you start by helping us understand, like, how you got into this. Why – why is it that names are so important when it comes to things in the media, and what led you to focus on things like language and names and styles in your research?
Fred Vultee: Well, I started my – my journalism career as a copy editor. We’re the ones that they usually don’t make movies about. And I kind of evolved into one of those night copy editors on a big newspaper where we tend not to be the people who ask, “Well, what did the president know and when did he know it,” but like, “Wow. It’s interesting. This guy was the president for the first edition, yet here he is in the fourth edition as a dictator. What – did he pass his dictator exams or what?”
Um, and that’s – that’s the sort of thing – you probably saw it really brought out during Hurricane Katrina when competing news agencies had, you know, a photo of a white guy emerging from a store into the water with an armful who was helping his family and a Black guy who was emerging with an armful of goods into the floodwater who was looting.
Those kinds of framing distinctions where the word choices tell us that we’re talking about one type of story or another or help us to that – that conclusion. So you – you remember Walter Lippmann’s – one of his many great lines from Public Opinion in 1920. So for the most part we don’t – we don’t see first and then define; we define first and then see.
So the way that words have that capacity of telling me in advance of, “This is looting and this is helping your family,” or “This is president and this is dictator, are the sorts of things that, uh – that stayed with me when I went from editing copy to teaching editing then eventually learning big, long theories about how words work and how they work with attitudes and how they work with news practice.
Ken Ward: Sure. Now, so on – on sort of the – the professional side, you know, journalists pick up these – these naming styles, these naming conventions often in these texts called stylebooks. And we have one big one in the United States called the Associated Press Stylebook. So can you – since that plays such a central role in your research, can you talk a little bit about how the stylebook came to be, its development throughout history into the book or the, I guess now, online resource that we have today?
Fred Vultee: Okay. Well, stylebooks are in a lot of ways kind of an artifact of the industrial era of journalism who we literally became factories of news. You know, lots of people do stuff and do specific tasks along an assembly line. And the stylebook is an essential tool in making sure that there’s a nice, homogenous voice for the institution. Generally – and this is really true of the AP dating back to its – maybe its main modern era from 1950 on – is the idea that we’re not here to tell you how to write or to stifle your individuality.
I know that they say about copy editors and the stylebook’s really careful to tell you that we – we don’t do that. But we do want you to sound like – like news and to sound like the institution and to be basically – to be understood anywhere. It’s the idea that you can write something anywhere and have it be understood anywhere. And that calls for a lot of assumptions.
And those are things, again, that mostly help the assembly line move pretty fast. We don’t have to have an argument about a lot of really simple things. You know, “Do we abbreviate street and road? Do we spell out a number here? Do we capitalize this?” Those all, you know – we don’t have to slow the assembly line down and – and talk about why to have that change. We simply do it.
Now, there’s a real – and scholars like Deborah Cameron, for example, have pointed out that that’s a really good way of – of putting a clean objective face on what we do in the editing process. And it also skips over a lot of ideas that it’s a very short hop from, “We’ll capitalize this,” or “We’ll lowercase this” or “We’ll abbreviate this,” to, “Well, men will have no courtesy title and women will have to choose Mrs. or Miss.”
A lot of other institutions – and again, it’s a very short hop from there to one of – one of the things I’m bringing out of this chapter, which is that those early editions of the stylebook are quick to tell us that there’s only one way to talk about religion, and that’s the right way.
And on the – in a very thorough listing of what are member names of the National Council of Churches, we’ll then get to a reminder that there’s no official name for the Jewish church. So that idea that there’s a Jewish church that doesn’t have an official name coexists with this side-by-side mandate for precision – is that the real flexibility of a style manual is that things – because many of the decisions are simple and objective and free of ideological meaning, there’s a simplification that none of them have any ideological meaning.
And very quickly when we get into gender, religion, ethnicity, partisan politics or anything like that, they can very quickly take this meaning on. And the balance that attracts me is this between when we look like we’re doing objectivity and when we’re curating out some kind of ideological work that merely looks like objectivity.
Ken Ward: Well, and it’s interesting because one question that this asks is, “How are these rules determined? How does the – the Associated Press in the case of the – the stylebook we’re taking about right now – how does it determine what those rules are? Do they come through norms – is it kind of top-down or bottom-up?”
Fred Vultee: Well, first thing I want to say is that the Associated Press Stylebook in 2022 is very [laughs] different from where it was in 1950. There’s now a large board of people – one of the main focuses of the changes announced this year, for example, are geared directly toward diversity and inclusiveness. So that process is a lot different from when the – small idiosyncratic example:
If you look at the dialect entry in the stylebook, it’s been pretty consistent from ’77 up into the teens and 2020s. There is a passage on how to write dialogue that sounds like it came out of a black-and-white movie. I think it’s literally, “Din’t ya yoosta live at Toity-Toid Street and Sekun’ Amya?” [Laughs] And – and it tells you, well, in that case you’re supposed to – to write words as if they were to be pronounced, “ove by da moom pitchers?” Um, sounds great.
And if it gives you the idea that – that style in 1950 or 1970 was about a bunch of people running around New York with press – you know, press cards in their fedoras, you’re probably right, and that idea that this very, you know – very small cadre of people were determining what’s essentially nationwide language about everything.
It’s even more true when your AP story might be placed on your homepage by a computer program without human intervention. You know, a cool thing all along in this has been – and it’s explicit early in the stylebook that the – the easier it is for everyone to use the material without changing it, the simpler it – my first newspaper, if you used a story straight from UPI wire with the typesetting codes embedded, you didn’t have to – you know, you essentially took a whole step out of the process.
You didn’t have to re-key stroke it or run it through a second machine and replace those codes. You’re saving a pretty good amount of labor when you do that. So there’s a lot of incentive to pick words, pick phrases, pick ideas and concepts that will fit in everywhere.
And kind of the idea there is that the smallest papers in the wilds of Missouri, or the wilds of Nebraska, doesn’t have the resources that the New York Times does to make these changes. So it puts less burden on, you know, dare we say the three people, three times a week operation, somewhere out in what is unkindly termed flyover country [laughs] …they have – they don’t have the burden to change that the New York Times might with its 220 linotype machines at that point. So there’s a – that bias toward being able to use it as it comes out of the package.
Which, again, looks like a good assembly line trick, but tends to hide the idea that that’s a person in New York at that point making what are, in effect, national decisions. Again, those are really commonplace when we have a rule like, “Well, we’ll abbreviate street and avenue but not road and plaza.” Matters like that.
When we get into how we define a religion, you know, creating a Jewish church, for example, to whether Sharia law is strict Islamist law or just Islamic law. That’s when things get a little bit dicier and when this – this kind of cover of, “This is the objective, labor-free national standard for things” starts to hide some kind of deeper meanings.
Ken Ward: Sure. So – so talk about that just a little bit. Looking specifically about the language used around Islam, start by explaining for us, when did this process of trying to sort out standardized language to refer to these terms that relate to Islam – when did that process begin in – for example – the AP stylebook?
Fred Vultee: Well, if you think of it as – as an extension of how a very male profession talks about women or how a very white profession talks about ethnic and racial minorities, it goes back to the 1920s or 1940s. Islam is a little bit more specific because it doesn’t really happen until probably after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
We start to see a bit of an upturn then, more interest as – and the – the – and I’m trying not to anger my friends at the stylebook when I talk about this [laughs]. Uh, but along their – you know, there’s a mission to make sure that when we announce these changes, we’re doing it in a way that reflects kind of what the sociologists like Gaye Tuchman that we call that strategic ritual of objectivity. It’s not maybe 19th century positivism, but it is this idea that we displace opinions from ourselves. We refer to external scales, external authorities when we can.
So we see in a lot of these things an idea that we’re going to make stuff look objective by grounding it in an empirical rule. It’s – it’s – it’s a matter of A, B and C. Therefore, it’s arithmetic that it works that way. So we start to see that in the early-1980s to kind of go away from that tangent a little bit, there’s a bit of an eruption in 1986 where there’s some really strict rules about how we empiricalize, for want of a better term, these terms of referring to the other.
So there’s a reference in there, for example. And again, let’s remember we’re talking about – about 36 years ago that American Indians shouldn’t be referred to as Native Americans. Why not? Because it’s – it’s imprecise. Their ancestors came on the land bridge from Asia. So that sort of “Here’s an empirical justification for why we’re going to do this.”
If you look a little bit earlier in that volume, there’s a reference to that Arabic homophone, the noun Al, for example, which in a phrase like Al Saud means the Saud family or the house of Saud, kind of like you would see in a TV drama, except it’s pretty common. It’s the Saud family or a different family that might rule a different sheikhdom.
And the reference in the stylebook there is, “Well, don’t use “Al” here. It’s an article that has – don’t use “Al” in names because it’s an article that has the meaning of lord or sir or mister,” which confuses, really, two different parts of speech and is basically empirical nonsense. But it looks really meaningful.
It looks like we’re – well, “We’re going to make a style decision to use the article in a proper name. In a family name, for example, we’re going to say, “Don’t. But here’s an empirical reason for what’s basically a stylistic coin toss.” So those kinds of decisions come along as – as we see more interaction between maybe the American public and perceptions of the Middle East. We tend to see more interest in Arabic names and in Muslim terminology. So a little theoretical flashback there. A lot of this comes under the heading of what a literary critic called – named Edward Said called orientalism.
There’s an idea that the West has in general a kind of naming and fixing the East as this implacable, irrational kind of everything that the rational, calm modern West stands against that encapsulates Islam, encapsulates the Arab world, the Arabic language. And we tend to see things like that come along. So the Salman Rushdie case, the author whose book, The Satanic Verses, was condemned by Iran’s supreme leader at that point.
The term that came out in there is probably misapplied was “fatwa.” You might have seen that in news accounts, meaning either the call to have Rushdie killed or it’s a term like meaning “Islamic sentence of death.” It’s actually a much simpler noun. It means it’s an answer to a question about religious law. So to have a fatwa, you have to have it be a question and you have to have a certified, you know – an authority who’s qualified to answer that question. “Is it okay to do this on Fridays,” for example.
And then you have to have the answer to the question. So the question of qualification to the person and the answer. There’s substantial debate among scholars even now as to whether Khomeini ever issued a fatwa about getting rid of Salman Rushdie. It doesn’t resemble his other fatwas, for one. Um, it’s not really expressed in the form that they were.
And yet, it came to be certainly in American news terminology this term for Islamic death sentence. And as that kind of thing propagates, you can sort of see the idea that – that kind of orientalist idea that a term like this kind of exists to let the West have something to talk about. So do you remember hearing about the myth of the Eskimos having 18 million words for snow?
Ken Ward: Of course.
Fred Vultee: Okay. When linguists have looked at that, they tend to say, first off, well, that doesn’t count languages that throw everything into one word – you remember Steppenwolf, a song called “Earschplittenloudenboomer”?
Ken Ward: [Laughs] Okay. Yeah.
Fred Vultee: Which I think was on the same album with, uh – with “The Pusher,” but I’m not sure about that. So language is going to have different ways of making up a word. But the idea about the – you know, the Innuits and their many words for snow. Sort of like we saw in an article back in the second U.S. Iraq War that said, “Oh. Well, it tells us a lot about regional culture that Arabic has half a dozen words for corruption and cronyism.” Okay. You don’t have to spend a lot of time with the dictionary to say, “Hey. English is right up there in the fight there.”
Um, but it’s a way of using this – this empirical evidence to talk about how a different culture is so strange and so far removed from our rational perspective that they have 18 million words for snow or that they have – that, you know, corruption is so endemic that they have half a dozen different ways of saying, “You know, boodle, bag man, payoff.”
Any of the English terms you might use for it. So those kind of things come along as we have Rushdie, as we have another big U.S./Middle East reaction in the – in the first of the U.S./Iraq wars, as we have another Camp David agreement and then the collapse of that agreement. And then there’s 9/11 comes along.
So it’s these kind of resurgences of interest in the East broadly. The ability to conflate – kind of like Said said, Islam – you know, unlike any other religion, Islam is and means everything. So that anything Arabic is Muslim, anything Muslim is violent and opposed to us, any writing that goes from right to left has little squiggles on top of it is a symbol of being, you know, equally scary.
That’s why we tend to have these ideas like, “Oh, my God. They found Arabic writing on airplanes.” Um and somebody else comes along and says, “No, it ain’t.” I went on a ride-along with a photographer one time 30 years ago because somebody had called in to say, “Oh, there’s Arabic writing at the power station.”
And it was actually – when you got a little bit closer to it – it said, “Goth,” in kind of big – big – big, gothy-looking spray-painted letters [laughs]. But then, “Oh, my God. There’s somebody talking Middle Eastern at the mall.” Um, those mere concepts tend to bring up that, “I have to call the – call the newspaper and tell them something’s weird.”
Ken Ward: Sure. So does the conversation change at all once we – and you mentioned September 11. Does the conversation change in terms of these – these naming conventions and our style in the 2000s? Or – or do we still have this same pattern today? I mean, of course, we’re constantly negotiating language. But how – how did that change in the 2000s?
Fred Vultee: Well, it changed in a lot of fairly productive ways. One is I think there was a bigger need…and this is partly technological, partly driven by the fact that we can give and get answers a lot quicker online in matters like that. We don’t have to wait for a style update to come over the teletype machine. And we saw a lot more attention to details of accuracy.
So there’s literal transliterations so that, you know, Quran or Muhammad would be more accurate ways of writing the things that we spelled Koran and Mohammed for a long time before that. That’s – that’s an argument that goes back literally to the 16th century in the UK, drew more attention to that. And so, there was a movement towards that more literal accuracy. There’s some kind of back-and-forth.
So there’s the idea that we have to introduce a term like Sharia by defining it as “strict Islamic law,” and then somebody coming along would say, “Well, why is strictness an attribute of that?” and it became in the next edition I think just Islamic law. So there’s what I generally would have to say is an idea of more thoroughness.
So the definition of Islam grew. It was four lines long in 1977. So just for a comparison, there was a definition of laetrile, that bogus cancer cure made from peach pits, that was three times as long as the definition of Islam in that edition of the AP stylebook. You tend to see much more expansion of that.
You tend to see that move away from defining the East rather than saying, “Oh, yeah. Muhammad. He’s the guy who founded this religion.” It’s the idea that, “Well, a point of revealed religions is that people don’t found them. You know, they are – they are revealed to them.” So there’s the – comes to the idea that we should talk about Muhammad as the prophet.
You know, the seal of prophecy of Islam rather than this guy who walked up on a mountain and founded a religion. There’s a lot of matters like that that really open itself up to more nuance. But the interesting thing about that is that creates a kind of backlash. The sort of thing that you see when – and again. Taking style back to the ’90s or so, that if we start to let women call themselves Ms. or start to let boards use the title of chair or chairperson, they’re just grabbing at things and messing with the purity of established language.
Because style always – almost always, at least, includes, “Let’s respect the language while we’re doing it.” So every time we see a – let’s say more technically accurate transliterations, we get a backlash that says, “Well, we’ve given them an inch. They’ll want a mile next time. Next – next we’ll have to have Quranic instruction in schools.” Right? So you’ll see maybe in more ideologically oriented productions like Fox News a deliberate back-transliteration.
And that’s, you know – again. Staff index is an effort of what we’re doing with style as a cool measure here. It takes some time. You can’t simply use a story from the wire if you want Quran to go back to being spelled “Koran.” Right? So the investment of staff time tells us that somebody sees something important to their audience in stopping this advance against the language. And that’s a pretty cool – one way I sum this up sometimes is, we’re really talking about a paleontology of style. We’re counting the tree rings.
So we get to a big tree ring here. It means either a big rainy season or we had a lot of interaction between American news and this distant – the distant concept called the Middle East or the Arab World or the Muslim World. When we see smaller tree rings, there might be something else going on.
But basically, we’re going back and looking at, what’s happening in the world while this is going on? What are the traces we see from it later in how we practice news how we talk about how? How our textbooks talk about matters like that. It’s not maybe history in the sense that – that historians would be used to doing, but it’s a really useful way of looking at these markers of practice and what we do with our limited time as journalists in making – making information make sense to the world.
Ken Ward: Sure. Well, I’m afraid we’re starting to run [laughs] short on time here, and that’s too bad because this is a really fascinating conversation. I have several other questions that I’d like to ask. But the last one that I have to ask is the question that we ask all guests on this show, and I’m really interested to hear how you’ll answer it. And that question is, “Why does journalism history matter?”
Fred Vultee: I would say because it helps people put context, put data and the – the cultural context in which it makes sense – into a package that helps them do their job. We ask a lot of people when we ask them to do democracy on a decision like intervening in Ukraine, any role of U.S. involvement overseas and U.S. domestic decisions at home. And when we look at how organizations and individuals have made sense of this in the past, how audiences have received it, how – how we learn about practice from traces like style and matters like that, that’s really helping people today do a better job of democracy.
You know, we’re not gonna learn – we’re not gonna flash back to Chicago and be 1940 Chicago all over again; learning about the world through this isolation, this prism. But we are gonna be able to make better sense about the decisions we make today. And I think in that sense that’s where historians are really giving us an opportunity to do something with the past that makes our present make more sense.
Ken Ward: Well, Fred, we’re out of time. But I just want to thank you one more time for being a guest on the show. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Fred Vultee: It’s really been a pleasure, and I’m looking forward to seeing everything in this volume. Everything I’ve seen so far looks terrific.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, that’s it for this episode. Thank you all for tuning and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. That’s all one word. Until next time. I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”