This article was first published in the State of the Faith Newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox every Monday evening.
The email arrived as I was boarding a plane. A freelancer wanted to know why I had introduced what he considered an error in a recent article.
After taking a closer look at the story, I was relieved to discover that the problem wasn’t the problem at all; the change was based on our Newsroom Style Guide, which is closely tied to the Associated Press Style Book.
“I know it’s weird, but that’s our style,” I replied.
“Hey, at least you have style,” he said.
He is right. We have style, and we have it in abundance, especially on the rhythm of religion. The Associated Press recently published about 40 new entries in the religion section of its digital stylebook, and an updated print version is coming in June. The Stylebook helps journalists like me talk about complex religious concepts with clarity and respect.
For this week’s newsletter, I spoke with AP Religious News Director David Crary and Religious News Editor Holly Meyer about the work that has been done in the new entries. and some of the specific terms that have been added. It was a pleasure to choose their brains.
Kelsey Dallas: How did you decide which terms to add?
Holly Meyer: When we got the green light to go ahead and revise the Stylebook, David and I knew we needed help. We enlisted three outside experts to read through it all, review it, and give us their feedback: Mary Gladstone (editor for Religion News Service), Bobby Ross Jr. (editor of The Christian Chronicle and former journalist AP cleric) and Richard Ostling (another former AP religious reporter). Their comments were our guide for entries to add.
David Crary: We told them that their job was to suggest updates or revisions to existing entries and tell us what was missing. Some of our own staff also intervened.
Some of the omissions they noted were surprising. It was surprising for us, for example, that the Sikh religion was not there. We ended up with about 40 new entries.
Kelsey: Did you also seek help from scholars or practitioners of religion for entries?
David: We absolutely did. We went denomination by denomination. With the Sikh entry, we consulted a group of Sikh scholars to make sure we got the terminology right. We are truly grateful for their contribution.
One of the most complicated things we did was make “Catholic” the default reference to Catholicism rather than “Roman Catholic”. We consulted like crazy because we wanted to be sure that the Catholic authorities were on board. They had lots of detailed feedback for us.
Kelsey: What if a denomination is nervous about a suggested change but its refusal seems to be emotional rather than objective? Are you ready to go against expert advice?
David: There have been a few examples like this where we had to try to decide how much to echo the self-image of a denomination. For example, Christian Scientists have their own way of framing their attitude toward medical care that might be a little different from how journalists would portray it. We tried to be gentle and find the right balance.
We have found that if you try to briefly summarize the origins or history of a denomination, you will sometimes come across conflicting details. We had to learn the art of rigging because we didn’t want to choose one version over another. A lot of our work was to write something that would work for people who had different dates in mind. We didn’t mean to ruffle any feathers into thinking the AP decided the date is officially this or that.
Holly: A lot of the decisions we were making involved the level of detail we needed. We had to remember that we were not writing for specialists in religion. We were creating guidance and rules to help journalists who are probably not religious experts.
In some cases, we have decided to make an entry less complicated or less detailed so that journalists can seek additional information from their sources. We figured we could push them on solid ground and then let them push on to find the details.
Kelsey: I’ve always considered the Stylebook something to check out after writing your story. Now you make me think that would actually be a good starting point for a story.
Holly: I think that’s a great idea. Knowing that a topic is light-hearted and has a multi-faith component can be helpful when writing about Diwali, for example. It gives you all sorts of threads to follow as you go along.
Kelsey: Updating the Stylebook sounds like a nerve-wracking process. As a journalist, I don’t know if I would be prepared for this kind of responsibility. How did you experience this challenge?
David: The Catholic thing was essential for us. What motivated me were my experiences writing about Catholicism in the United States. I felt the previous stylebook was outdated and it was wrong to tell people to use Roman Catholicism all the time.
It was nerve wracking to make the switch. But also fun.
Holly: It’s nice to be able to contribute to such a rich resource for journalists across the country and beyond. I felt the weight of needing to get it right.
The process itself wasn’t particularly glamorous. It was a lot of work inside a Word document, copying and pasting things and using commenting features. And then going through it all over and over again trying to catch errors.
Kelsey: Tell more about the process. How long did new updates take to figure out?
David: It was about three months at least of hard work for us, and a lot of that time was spent getting into the weeds on certain issues.
Holly: I’ve never done anything like this before, so I had to figure out simple things like what format to work in and how to get all of our expert input together in one place so we could go in and make decisions.
I just started copying the religion chapter as it was and added these comments, noting where they wanted to add a new entry. Once that was all in, David and I went through each one.
Then we returned the document to a few staff members. We just continued to add comments and considerations to the master document.
We finally shared it with Paula Froke, the AP Stylebook expert, who helped us further and put the document into Stylebook format.
David: Some of the relatively secondary entries were extremely complicated. Describing the history of the Anabaptists or Eastern Rite churches was difficult enough that one almost wondered if it was worth the effort.
In contrast, some of our favorite entries only had one or two sentences, like trying to advise people against using the word cult. Same with denomination entry. We weren’t dictating; we were just saying that there are some denominations that don’t like that label, so think about that when you use that word.
And then one of my favorites was the word devotee. The entry says think again before you use it, because it means different things to different people. Find another word since it is not a very precise word.
We love these short entries that get people thinking.
Kelsey: Other favorite starters?
Holly: I think I’m very excited to add the Sikhism entry to the Stylebook. As discussed, it’s hard to believe we didn’t have that in there, so it’s really special to include it.
My other favorite is the one that (AP reporter) Deepa Bharath added – the Diwali entry. It’s cool that every person who looked at the document found different things that were missing.
David: We were happy to add Haredi/Haredim, which is what ultra-Orthodox Jews use to describe themselves. They don’t really like the term “ultra-Orthodox”.
Note: The new print edition of the AP Stylebook, which comes out June 1, is dedicated to Rachel Zoll, a longtime AP religious reporter who died in 2021. David Crary wrote a nice memory of her last May.
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Term of the week: Shacharit
Shacharit refers to morning prayers that are part of Jewish tradition. They take place just after dawn and last between 30 and 40 minutes when recited in groups, according to Religion News Service.
The timing is notable in light of the Senate’s passage last month of a bill that would make daylight saving time permanent. Jews argue that such a change in policy – which would lead to later sunsets across much of the country – would disrupt their religious practices and complicate their relationship with their employers.
“It will affect our religious life, our professional life and our family life,” Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president of government affairs for Agudath Israel of America, told Religion News Service. “If corporate and personal prayers start after 8 a.m., how will people get to work at 9 a.m. or earlier?”
What I read…
After its recent defeat in the Supreme Court, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has taken a new approach to requests for religious accommodation from death row inmates. The Associated Press released the details in an article last week.
Ethan Bauer’s family fled Cuba more than 50 years ago. Earlier this year he was able to return to the country and see what they left behind. Don’t miss her beautiful reflection on her journey, which appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine.
Members of various faith groups rallied outside the Supreme Court last week in support of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Participants argued that she was the right choice for the court and a champion of religious pluralism, according to Religion News Service. The Senate is expected to vote on Jackson’s nomination by mid-April.
I came across a column this week about an uncomfortable truth: Following the Ten Commandments doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good person. “Of course, covetousness is bad. Theft, adultery, murder – the worst. But I spend most of my life doing none of that and at best I get a C for being a good person,” Jim McDermott wrote for America magazine in an article calling for an 11th Commandment.
First, the New York Public Library System announced that it was waiving all late fees. Then the unexpected books, DVDs and letters poured in.