A is for abattoir; Z is for ZULU: All in the Handbook of Journalism

July 9, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

The first entry is abattoir (not abbatoir); the last is ZULU (a term used by Western military forces to mean GMT).

In between are 2,211 additional entries in the A-to-Z general style guide, part of the Reuters Handbook of Journalism, which we are now making available online. Also included in the handbook are sections on standards and values; a guide to operations; a sports style guide and a section of specialised guidance on such issues as personal investments by journalists, dealing with threats and complaints and reporting information found on the internet.

The handbook is the guidance Reuters journalists live by — and we’re proud of it. Until now, it hasn’t been freely available to the public. In the early 1990s, a printed handbook was published and in 2006 the Reuters Foundation published a relatively short PDF online that gave some basic guidance to reporters. But it’s only now that we’re putting the full handbook online.

We’ve decided to make the handbook available to everyone for a number of reasons. Among them:

  • Transparency: At a time when trust is an endangered commodity in the financial and media worlds, it’s important that news consumers see the guidelines our journalists follow.
  • Service: As we’ve seen over the past decade, the barriers to publishing have dropped so that anyone with an idea and a computer can be a publisher. But it’s also become clear that publishers have a varying standard of truth, fairness and style. Our handbook is a good place for budding journalists to begin.
  • Geography: Reuters serves a global audience and the handbook recognises the cultural and political differences that our journalists face in reporting for the world. This is a handbook not just for English-language journalists in the United Kingdom or the United States, but for wherever English is used.

Many entries deal with words that are sometimes confused or misused. Turning randomly to the “H” section, we learn the difference between hyperthermia and hypothermia (The latter means “Too cold. Think that o rhymes with low” while the former means “Too hot. Think of ‘er’ as in very.”); Haarlem and Harlem (the latter is in New York City, the former in the Netherlands); hangar and hanger (the latter is for clothes, the former a shelter for aircraft); and hale and hail (the former means “free from disease, or to pull or haul by force.” The latter “is to salute or call out, or an ice shower”).

We take a global approach to the spelling of many words. Often, it’s the United States against the world. For instance, our preferred style is “artefact,” except in the U.S., where it’s artifact. Same goes for axe and axeing — our standards for most of the world — which become ax and axing in the U.S. There’s also “backwards,” which loses its “s” in American stories, and “leukaemia,” which loses that first “a” in the U.S. There’s plenty more: tyre and tire, titbit and tidbit, and defence and defense.

In the world of diplomacy, economics and academe, the G3 is Germany, Japan and the U.S.; the G5 extends membership to France and the U.K.; G7 grows the club to Canada and Italy; make it G8 with Russia; G10 adds Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. As for the G24, G30 and G77, you’ll have to look for yourself (we’ve got entries for them, too).

There are slang words to avoid (posh — though one former Spice Girl might object) and a number of common misspellings (Viet Cong, not Vietcong; ventricle, not ventrical; machinegun, not machine gun; and ketchup, not catchup or catsup).

The sports section of the handbook offers a list of sports cliches to avoid (hard fought, made history, veteran, bounce back, and icon), the difference between a field and a pitch (the former’s where American football and baseball are played), and an explanation of delight as a transitive verb that needs an object (“Marat Safin delighted Russian fans with a neat chip…not Marat Safin delighted with a chip.”). Words like disaster and tragedy shouldn’t be used in sports stories, as this devalues the significance of these words (“Losing a football match is not a disaster. A stand falling down and crushing a fan is”).

When language implies a value judgment, we must use words very carefully (cult, for instance: One person’s cult is another’s religion). The entry for “good, bad” advises: “For financial and commodity markets good news and bad news depends on who you are and what your position is in the market. Avoid them.”

One of the most controversial entries is that of “terrorism.” The entry reads, in part:

“We may refer without attribution to terrorism and counter-terrorism in general but do not refer to specific events as terrorism. Nor do we use the adjective word terrorist without attribution to qualify specific individuals, groups or events. … Report the subjects of news stories objectively, their actions, identity and background. Aim for a dispassionate use of language so that individuals, organisations and governments can make their own judgment on the basis of facts. Seek to use more specific terms like “bomber” or “bombing”, “hijacker” or “hijacking”, “attacker” or “attacks”, “gunman” or “gunmen” etc.”

This policy has been passionately debated inside and outside Reuters. As  the handbook says, “we aim for dispassionate language” so that our customers can “make their own judgment on the basis of facts.”

Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger puts it this way:

“Over the years we have been criticised for this policy on numerous occasions, when people or governments wanted us to label an incident ourselves rather than quote their views. Criticism of our policy was especially fierce when the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Reuters made the decision not to describe the attackers as terrorists, because we thought a label would not add to our vivid description of the thousands of deaths and the destruction of the iconic twin towers of the World Trade Center. In the years since, as the world has witnessed numerous other attacks, we’ve chosen to continue that policy of sticking with the facts and letting our readers make up their own minds based on our reporting and the evidence we present them.”

It’s important to point out that the handbook is a living document, one that preserves rules that have guided Reuters journalists through a century and half but also one that may change when the times change.  It’s also important to note that the handbook is produced by humans who aren’t infallible — and it’s used by humans who aren’t infallible, so sometimes we make mistakes. I’m sure you’ll let us know when we do, but we’re usually harder on ourselves than anyone else is.

I hope you’ll find the handbook useful, whether you’re a journalist, a student, a teacher or an engaged reader. And we welcome your comments and suggestions.

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