Is it per cent, percent or simply %? May 15th or 15 May? Who and what needs to be capitalised? Is it 13 or thirteen?
In journalism, consistency is of the utmost importance. Constant changes of tone or language confuse readers. As such, style guides have been adopted by most news organisations, publications and universities to maintain the status quo of language within stories.
Journalists working for different publications need to be quick to adapt to each one’s style, so it’s handy to be familiar with a few of them:
Style Guides available online
The Associated Press (AP) Style Guide is one of the most commonly used, with some individual publications borrowing from it to create their own style manuals. The entire style guide is available under a purchase or subscription model here, but Purdue University does a good rundown of AP basic rules here.
The ABC style guide is here, on an easily navigable web interface. The ABC also has a pronunciation database of proper and place names here.
JournOz has a collection of free style guides available online, including The Economist.
Buzzfeed has its style guide here, including its editorial standards and ethics guidelines. These include guidelines for fact-checking, embeds and polls.
The BBC News Style guide is here, but it primarily concerns academic output by BBC news.
The Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism (CIIJ) at San Fransisco State University has released a Diversity Guide which, although not a style guide, answers many common questions raised in covering modern diversity issues.
The Guardian has a basic rundown of its style guide available here.
The Conversation style guide is here, but the writers for this publication are academics rather than journalists.
The News Manual (a professional resource for journalists and the media) has an extensive list of available style guides available on their webpage here.
Before you get outraged by the strictness of the Style Guides, remember that editors know that language is constantly changing. Shakespearean English, although grammatically correct, would not make sense to many of today’s readers. Even the slang used twenty years ago may no longer be relevant. This is why publications regularly make changes to their style guides, to stay current with the language used by audiences, responding to feedback, political events and societal changes.
The Guardian, for example, updated its style guide in 2019 in response to the rising effects of climate change. They resolved to use the words ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ in place of ‘climate change’, and ‘global heating’ instead of ‘global warming’. There are articles about these updates here, and Madhur Anand wrote a piece for The Conversation about the role of these changes in influencing behaviour around the climate crisis.
Another example of adaptation is The New York Times’s changes to the capitalisations of ‘Black’ and ‘White’ in response to the rising pressure of the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests. These changes, including capitalising Black and not white, are explained here.
One area of language still being haggled over is the use of they and their for a singular person (rather than just as the plural of his or hers). While the singular they was celebrated as the Merriam Webster Word of the Year in 2019, this piece indicates that it is not yet universally accepted in Style Guides.