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The email came as I was boarding a plane. A freelancer wanted to know why I’d introduced what he felt was an error into a recent piece.
After taking a closer look at the story, I was relieved to discover that the issue wasn’t an issue at all; the change was based on our newsroom style guide, which is closely tied to The Associated Press Stylebook.
“I know it’s weird, but that’s our style,” I wrote back.
“Hey, at least you’ve got style,” he said.
He’s right. We do have style, and we have it abundantly, especially on the religion beat. The Associated Press recently published around 40 new entries to the religion section of its digital Stylebook and an updated print version is coming in June. The Stylebook helps journalists like me talk about complicated religious concepts with clarity and respect.
For this week’s newsletter, I spoke with David Crary, the AP’s religion news director, and Holly Meyer, the religion news editor, about the work that went into the new entries and some of the specific terms that were added. It was a pleasure to pick their brains.
Kelsey Dallas: How did you decide what terms to add?
Holly Meyer: When we were given a green light to go ahead and revise the Stylebook, David and I knew we needed help. We tapped three outside experts to go through it all and review it and give us feedback: Mary Gladstone (copy editor for Religion News Service), Bobby Ross Jr. (editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle and former AP religion reporter) and Richard Ostling (another former AP religion reporter). Their feedback was our guide for what entries to add.
David Crary: We told them their mission was to suggest updates or revisions to existing entries and to tell us what was missing. Some people on our own staff chimed in, as well.
Some of the omissions they noted were startling. It was amazing to us, for example, that the Sikh religion wasn’t in there. We ended up with around 40 new entries.
Kelsey: Did you also ask religion scholars or practitioners for help with the entries?
David: We absolutely did. We went denomination by denomination. With the Sikh entry, we consulted a group of Sikh scholars to be sure we were getting that terminology right. We’re really grateful for their input.
One of the most complicated things we did was to make “Catholic” the default reference to Catholicism rather than “Roman Catholic.” We consulted like crazy because we wanted to be sure that Catholic authorities were on board. They had a lot of detailed input for us.
Kelsey: What if a denomination is nervous about a suggested change but their pushback seems to be emotional rather than objective? Are you willing to go against expert advice?
David: There were a couple of examples like that where we had to try to decide how much to echo a denomination’s self-image. For example, the Christian Scientists have their own way of phrasing their attitude toward medical care that might be a little bit different from the way journalists would describe it. We tried to be gentle and find the right balance.
We found that if you try to briefly summarize the origins or history of a denomination, you’ll sometimes run into conflicting details. We had to learn the fine art of fudging because we didn’t want to pick one version over another. A lot of our hard work involved writing something that would be suitable for people who had different dates in mind. We didn’t want to ruffle feathers by making it appear that the AP has decided the date is officially this or that.
Holly: A lot of the decisions we were making involved how detailed we needed to be. We had to remember we weren’t writing for religion scholars. We were creating guidance and some rules to help journalists who likely are not religion experts.
In some instances, we decided to make an entry less complicated or less detailed so that journalists could pursue additional information from their sources. We thought we could get them going on solid ground and then let them move forward to find the specifics.
Kelsey: I’ve always thought of the Stylebook as something to check after you’ve got your story written. Now you’re making me think it would actually be a good starting point for a story.
Holly: I think that’s a great idea. It can be helpful when you’re going to write about Diwali, for example, to know that a theme is light and that there’s a multifaith component to it. It gives you all sorts of threads to follow as you move forward.
Kelsey: Updating the Stylebook sounds like a nerve-wracking process. As a reporter, I don’t know that I would be prepared for that type of responsibility. What was it like for you to take on this challenge?
David: The Catholic thing was momentous for us. What motivated me was my experiences writing about Catholicism in the U.S. I felt that the previous stylebook was out of date and it was wrong to tell people to use Roman Catholic all the time.
It was nerve-wracking to actually make the change. But also fun.
Holly: It’s neat to get to contribute to such a storied resource for journalists across the country and beyond. I felt the weight of needing to get it right.
The process itself was not particularly glamorous. It was a lot of working inside of a Word document, copying and pasting things and using comment features. And then going through it all multiple times trying to catch errors.
Kelsey: Say more about the process. How long did the 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 going into the weeds on certain issues.
Holly: I’ve never done anything like this before, so I had to figure out even simple things like what format to work in and how to get all of the input from our experts into one place so we could go in and make determinations.
I just started copying over the religion chapter as it existed and added those comments, noting where they wanted to add a new entry. Once those were all in, David and I went through each one.
Then, we flipped the document to a couple staffers. We just kept adding comments and considerations onto the master document.
We eventually shared it with Paula Froke, the AP Stylebook expert, who helped usher us on further and got the document into the Stylebook format.
David: Some of the relatively secondary entries were extremely complicated. Describing the history of anabaptists or eastern rite churches was hard enough that we almost wondered if it was worth the trouble.
In contrast, some of our favorite entries were only one or two sentences, like trying to advise people away from using the word cult. Same with the denomination entry. We weren’t dictating; we were just saying there are some denominations that don’t like that label so think about it when you use that word.
And then one of my favorites was the word devout. The entry says think again before you use it, since it means different things to different people. Find another word since it’s not a very precise word.
We love those short entries that just get people to think.
Kelsey: Any other favorite entries?
Holly: I think I’m most excited about adding the Sikhism entry into the Stylebook. As discussed, it’s hard to believe we didn’t have that in there so it feels really special to put it in.
My other favorite is one that (AP reporter) Deepa Bharath added — the Diwali entry. It’s cool that each person who looked at the document found different things that were missing.
David: We were glad 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 will be released June 1, is dedicated to Rachel Zoll, a longtime AP religion reporter who died in 2021. David Crary wrote a beautiful remembrance of her last May.
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Term of the week: Shacharit
Shacharit refers to the morning prayers that are part of the Jewish tradition. They take place just after dawn and last between 30 and 40 minutes when recited in a group, according to Religion News Service.
That 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 policy change — 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,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice president for government affairs for Agudath Israel of America, to Religion News Service. “If congregational and personal prayers begin after 8 in the morning, how will people get to work at 9 a.m. or earlier?”
What I’m reading ...
After its recent loss at the Supreme Court, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has adopted a new approach to religious accommodation requests from death row inmates. The Associated Press hashed out the details in a story 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 his beautiful reflection on his trip, which appears in the April edition of Deseret Magazine.
Members of a variety of faith groups rallied in front of the Supreme Court last week in support of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Participants argued that she’s the right pick 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 stumbled on a column this week about an uncomfortable truth: Following the Ten Commandments doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good person. “Sure, coveting is bad. Stealing, adultery, murder — the worst. But I spend most of my life not doing any of those thing and at best I get a C in being a good person,” wrote Jim McDermott for America magazine in a piece calling for an 11th Commandment.
Odds and ends
First, the New York Public Library system announced it was waiving all late fees. Then, the books, DVDs and unexpected letters flooded in.