Because I am a baby boomer, I tend to look at books as an authoritative source. One of the books I use frequently when editing news copy is The Associated Press Stylebook, which contains several hundred entries that explain when to use quotation marks around book titles, when to write “compared with” instead of “compared to” and that the Chinese Nationalist party’s name is spelled Kuomintang (the word tang means party, so don’t write Kuomintang party).
The style rules change from time to time. Back in my early days as a reporter, AP style still called for using courtesy titles for women. When I interviewed a woman for a story, I had to ask her if she preferred to be referred to as Miss, Mrs. or Ms. on second reference, and then follow her preference. Men were simply referred to by their last names.
Oh, how I hated calling attention to a woman’s unequal treatment in the news based on her gender! Even in the early 1980s I thought that practice, which dated to an even earlier time when a married woman would have been referred to in print as “Mrs. (Husband’s Name),” was seriously flawed.
But that newspaper continued to follow the AP style, probably until AP changed the rule some years later.
Around The Columbian, we generally follow the AP style rules, too, with a few exceptions like spelling out the word “percent.” But this week we ditched a rule that to me seemed just as poorly conceived as the courtesy title rule.
I am talking about how we treat the word “Black” when referring to a person of color. Until Friday afternoon, AP style called for that word to be lowercase. It had been that way for many, many years, although the style was to capitalize African American when referring to an American Black person of African descent. The style rule also said to capitalize Negro, although that word is only to be used in quoted material and proper names like United Negro College Fund.
But here’s what the AP said on Friday: “AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa.”
I am glad for this rule change. But unlike my former paper, we were making the change regardless of what AP style dictated. In fact, we began doing so on Monday.
The decision-making process was led by Assistant News Editor Colleen Keller, who is the arbiter of style rules for The Columbian. Here is what she had to say in announcing the change:
“Some of you might be aware that we on the copy desk have been discussing changing our style for black in the racial sense to Black. Craig is supportive of updating our style. The Seattle Times made this change in December. The Associated Press… just moved a story about that topic, and mentioned that in the past week it had received inquiries from a half-dozen media organizations about this issue. We were one of those companies asking about their stance.
“I think this statement from Lori L. Tharps, a journalism professor and former journalist, in The New York Times in 2014, best expresses why we support this change: ‘When speaking of a culture, ethnicity or group of people, the name should be capitalized. Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora. Lowercase black is simply a color.’
“And before you ask, no, we are not considering the same for white. Here’s what The Seattle Times says: ‘white: Belonging to people with light-colored skin, especially those of European descent. Unlike Black, it is lowercase, as its use is a physical description of people whose backgrounds may spring from many different cultures. Capitalized white is often used by the white nationalist/white supremacist movement.’ ”
I feel like this was an important change to make, and now was the time to make it.