Stylebook reflects society

Published 1:02 am Tuesday, October 21, 2008

One of the things you talk about in journalism school is that a news organization should present a portrait of the people it covers. A reader should be able to get a sense of the community and culture of an area by reading a newspaper or magazine or Web site.

While everyone surely strives for this kind of representation, a more likely result is that journalists end up telling people what they are instead of simply reflecting what they are. Where maybe we should look into why Hannah Montana is a popular character with many of our children, we get lazy and just tell you that she’s popular.

Either way, society influences journalism, and journalism influences society. It turns into one of those, “which came first, the chicken or the egg” dilemmas.

There is one publication that provides the most telling description of where journalism in our country stands – and so, by extension, where our country stands. The Associated Press Stylebook is “The Journalist’s ‘Bible.’” It says so right there on While we don’t read Stylebook entries as part of daily devotionals, the book is a tool we use regularly.

AP style is an attempt at a universal system of word usage and abbreviation that makes a piece of writing as clear and concise as possible. AP style mandates that we write “Oct. 21” instead of spelling out the month, that we use the abbreviation “Ave.” when it is used as part of an address but not abbreviate “Road” or “Street,” and that we use the term “more than” when referring to a numerical value instead of “over” – we would want to make sure you understood Joe had 51 or more apples (more than 50 apples) instead of Joe having some apples that were very old as far as apples go (over 50 apples).

So, where does the omnipotent stylebook tell us American society is headed? Toward technology. Some of the new entries for the 2008 stylebook are: anti-spyware, anti-virus, high-definition, iPhone, podcast, text messaging, social networking, snail mail and Wikipedia. The only one of those that doesn’t belong in the group, snail mail, is a term coined because of the growing use of electronic mail, which now, apparently, is simply mail.

Inclusion in the stylebook is meaningful because it means a term has become so accepted by society that we journalists now have to decide how exactly we will accept it. Making the AP cut can be seen as more telling than making the Merriam-Webster cut.

Some entries get the ax. Gone are barmaid, blue blood, malarkey, milquetoast, Photostat and riffraff. The times are changing, and, if you don’t have a computer and an iPhone, you’re being left behind. At least that’s what our stylebooks tell us.