Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

AP's marriage blunder


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[Update: 2/21/13: On Thursday morning, the Associated Press issued a statement that it will refer to all married couples as husband and wife regardless of sexual orientation. It added the following to its AP Stylebook Online: "husband, wife, Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested."]

In the space of two months, management at the Associated Press has twice offended the LGBT community. The news organization's latest brouhaha is dangerously close to determining what married same-sex couples should be called, even in states and countries where same-sex marriage is a legal right.

The AP Stylebook is used by numerous news organizations in the United States and around the world. It is a guide of standard style usage for terms and phrases that often appear in newspaper articles or in other forms of media. Its entry for "transgender," for example, has been widely praised for many years for its inclusiveness and has undoubtedly assisted mainstream reporters who may have been uninformed and unaware of correct terminology in this area.

AP's latest move, however, is an alarming precedent, and one that, whether intentional or not, feeds into the false narrative that our enemies bring up time and again about same-sex marriages not being "real."

The trouble started last week, when a leaked AP memo surfaced. It read:

"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."

After questioning by media watchdogs and others, AP issued an additional sentence that it said clarified the memo. That 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."

AP spokesman Paul Colford told BuzzFeed that the update was no cause for alarm, but the change is troubling to us, and should concern readers since AP stories are among the most widely disseminated. AP reporters write numerous stories about marriage equality and how it affects same-sex couples that appear in hundreds of newspapers, especially those in mid-size or small towns. It means that when people read those stories, they can be influenced by the terminology that AP standards call for, and right now, AP is saying that same-sex married couples can and should be referred to as "partners."

This policy creates a double standard because it is not applied to heterosexual couples. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Journalists have both criticized the change in large part for that reason. 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," GLAAD said in a statement.

NLGJA President Jen Christensen wrote an open letter to AP Stylebook editor David Minthorn that read, in part, "such guidance may be appropriate for referring to people in civil unions, for which there are no established terms and the language is still evolving, but it suggests a double standard for same-sex individuals in legally recognized marriages. One has to assume that AP would never suggest that the default term should be 'couples' or 'partners' when describing people in opposite-sex marriages. We strongly encourage you to revise the style advisory to make it clear that writers should use the same terms for married individuals, whether they are in a same-sex or opposite-sex marriage."

Continuation of AP's policy blatantly disregards marriage laws in eight states, plus the District of Columbia. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Iowa, and Washington state have all legalized same-sex marriages; such couples have legal spouses, whether it is husband and husband or wife and wife. In California, some 18,000 same-sex couples were wed during the brief period in 2008 when it was legal to do so. The California Supreme Court upheld all of those marriages in 2009. Additionally, several foreign countries allow same-sex marriage, and AP has reporters around the world, covering various global issues, including LGBT rights.

AP's new policy comes soon after the media organization announced it would no longer use the word "homophobia" in political or social contexts because it "seems inaccurate." But as we wrote in this space a couple months ago, there's nothing wrong with calling anti-gay discrimination what it is – homophobic.

We strongly urge AP to rescind its policy on what to call spouses. And, we encourage married same-sex couples, if they are interviewed by an AP reporter or anyone else, to make clear that the interviewer knows that they are legally wed and to refer to their spouse as such.

AP's policy insinuates that same-sex marriages are not legitimate, which is not the case in the states and countries where it is legal. As marriage equality continues to make inroads – the Illinois Legislature is poised to pass a bill legalizing same-sex unions – AP would be better served if its reporters can accurately cover this issue, and that means referencing spouses as husband or wife, whether the couple is gay or straight.


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