The AP Takes a Stand for Clarity

The Associated Press has recently altered its stylebook for journalists to discourage the use of the terms “homophobia” and “ethnic cleansing” in news reporting. I agree strongly with both of these recommendations. Ethnic cleansing is, as AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told Politico, a euphemism for activities that are “pretty violent” and should not be in any way glossed over. What began (in the context of Bosnia as I recall) as a darkly ironic term for mass killing and displacement has, unfortunately, entered the lexicon as a general description for the same. If people want to refer to what went on in Darfur as “ethnic cleansing” they are free to do so, but journalists should not whitewash such events with vagueness.

The decision to discourage “homophobia” is much dicier, and has led to no small amount of discussion and controversy. I think Minthorn is correct that, because a phobia is a clinical term for a “an irrational, uncontrollable fear,” it should not be used to casually describe opponents of gay rights. I have always been uncomfortable with the term as a type of political hyperbole meant to pigeonhole as much as describe; in journalistic contexts, it certainly does not connote objectivity.

One of the main arguments made against the AP’s decision is that most anti-gay activists are motivated by fear, and that this level of fear does, in fact, border on the pathological. This may be true for some, but certainly not all, people who take a position against, say, gay marriage—and does not in any way justify its use in news reporting. Can any thoughtful journalist really be comfortable with branding all of those in California who voted for Proposition 8 (limiting the definition of marriage between a man and a woman) with the label homophobic? Many of them are Hispanic Catholics with deep cultural grounding in the idea of marriage as a holy sacrament. You can disagree with them; you can (as I would) wish to argue the distinction between religious and civil marriage, but you cannot call them pathological. If you do, what’s the point of even trying to dialogue with them?

On the other side is the argument that a non-clinical use of the suffix “-phobia” has entered the lexicon in many contexts—”Francophobia,” “Islamophobia,” “xenophobia,” etc.—and that “homophobia” should, as many of these other terms are, be considered normative. It’s important to remember here that we are talking about standards for news reporting, not general discourse. I would be no more comfortable with the terms “xenophobic” or “Francophobic” applied to people described in news articles (outside of quotes) than I am with “homophobic.” Leave these subjective terms to the political stump or the editorial page; they have no place in straight journalism.

  • Kent Ford, Moeditor

    On the other hand, sometimes things are what they are.
    If you’re writing about a homophobe, and the person admits to being one, use the word.
    And ethnic cleansing need not be violent, although the examples you mention certainly were.