This Sunday’s article will be the last blogpost based on the notes given to me by former university lecturer and journalist Alan Geere. As mentioned in previous articles in the series, these notes were picked up from my career as an undergraduate at the School of Media, Arts and Design in the University of Westminster‘s Harrow campus. It has been interesting to uncover these notes and expand upon them, as I have hopefully produced a helpful and accessible journalism resource for the ‘roving reporters’ of the future. It has also been a wonderful trip down memory lane. Though this is definitely the last article influenced by Prof. Geere, it may not be the last journalistic blast from the recent past. I have plans to go through the entire two binders that are packed full of notes and hopefully find something else that will fit into this series.
Today we are taking a look at what journalists and editors call ‘house style‘. The Free Dictionary by Farlex defines house style as “a set of rules concerning spellings, typography, etc, observed by editorial and printing staff in a particular publishing or printing company“. Essentially ‘house style’ is a loose term for a uniform set of regulations used by a newspaper, magazine or media group to keep the output of its journalistic staff consistent as it would otherwise be confusing for journalists and editors to operate by their own individual writing and spelling rules.
Style guides are common for both general and specialised purposes, for the general reading and writing audience, and for students and scholars of various academic disciplines, medicine, journalism, the law, government, business, and industry. However, in the vein of this article, I will be focusing on the newswriting species of these handy rulebooks.
An organisation’s house style is usually codified in a handbook, called a ‘style guide’ or ‘style manual’ which sets out in black and white the stylistic rules that the news organisation adheres to. Most major news organisations have one. In the UK, the public broadcaster BBC maintains a style guide for its news department. The BBC Style Guide, which is a staple of its inbuilt College of Journalism where many of its staffers are drawn from, was established by radio newsroom editor John Allen over a decade ago, and is available to the public online. Allen’s work helped the BBC train its reporting staff in its ideas in the defining of “the craft of writing, the flow of words, the potential ambiguity of language, and why writing for broadcast is a skill of its own“, according to the corporation’s blogger and style editor, Ian Jolly. The style guide also helped the BBC to further its long-standing aims of offering high-quality services in its role as a public service broadcaster, as listeners and viewers have long come to expect. Several of the British broadsheets also swear by the style bible, with the centre-left leaning paper The Guardian being a particularly cited example in journalism study circles. Indeed, the Guardian and its sister paper, The Observer have made their style guide completely accessible to the public by sharing new rules in grammar, language and news style on Twitter and through a website. Internally, The Guardian group emphasises the importance of using correct language among its journalists. All its editorial staff are encouraged to take an active interest in the language they write, and to read books on words to not only sharpen their professional skills, but also as educational and useful entertainment. The Guardian’s tome of reporting convention is one of the oldest in existence. The first edition was published in 1928, with frequent revisions since then.
In the United States, the news agency Associated Press (AP) has long maintained a very influential style guide. It is well-regarded enough that it has transcended its original corporate setting and is now the go-to linguistic manual for thousands of students at America’s journalism colleges. Its hallowed pages are also regularly consulted by journalists from many other news organisations far removed from the style guide’s parent. Officially known as the “Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law“, the stylebook is a comprehensive guide to the news agency’s usage of American English. It is regularly updated by the company’s editors, usually in June every year. Its eminence and history alongside the development of US newswriting in its modern form means that it is considered as an essential guide for American newspaper journalism as a whole, although it is not compulsory to use it. The guide’s current form was crystallised by AP in 1953. The hard copy of the stylebook has sold around two million copies via bookstores and distribution since 1977. Like its British counterpart The Guardian, AP’s book has also been reconfigured for the digital age, with its own webpage and Twitter account.
So why do news organisations invest so much time in studying language and then setting the rules in stone to make a workable style guide. The following paragraphs sum up why style guides are needed:
CONSISTENCY: English is a language replete with thousands of words. The English language has always borrowed heavily from other languages as well as creating new words (neologisms), and there are several dialects used by this now international tongue, many of which are also written. Additionally, the language’s grammar is a study all of its own. Having a style guide means a news organisation can make sure that spellings, names, titles and grammatical rules remain constant across the board and provides uniformity to that company’s news output. Inconsistent writing between one reporter and the next would only lead to a confusing situation and much uncertainty in the newsroom. Journalists would be constantly badgering each other across cubicles on how this word could be spelled, or whether that other phrase sounds right. Editors would have a minefield to run through when editing and subbing their staff’s copy and it can also be infuriating for the consumers. A style guide sets the rules for everyone, a standard that not only keeps the newsroom in synchronisation, but also makes everyone’s lives easier.
PERCEIVED QUALITY: Even in this more cynical media age, where the media have often been derided as liars with hidden agendas, and quite rightly in some cases, news consumers still innately respect news organisations and the craft of journalism itself. However, like any company, news outlets need to turn a profit, and it is advertisers, subscribers, casual readers on sites and the old men who pick up the morning paper who keep a news outlet breathing and sustainable. As they are paying customers, they expect quality. Likewise, outlets such as the BBC have built solid reputations on the assumed quality of their reporting. A style guide is a yardstick for that quality. By sticking to its rules, the quality of the news articles, TV reports etc. is bolstered and maintained. Deviating from the rules set out in the style guide would probably lead to a decline in the reportage, and would ultimately a decline in sales figures or viewer ratings. In the cutthroat world of a free-market media economy, this is a fatal outcome
EASE OF READING AND UNDERSTANDING: Style guides are often based on the accepted linguistic norm, using rules that most people would consider correct. This means that if a story is written according to style standards, that makes it easier for the average person to digest, without any confusion or ambiguity. The last thing a reporter wants is for their story to be ‘lost in translation’. The style guide ensures that journalists are using clear understandable language which will not put off readers. This is is less likely to be a sticking point for pedants, langauge purists or anyone who wants to read a story with a familiar and correct-sounding style.
IDENTITY: These days, ‘branding’ is the big corporate buzzword of choice for boardroom executives. It does not matter whether you sell newspapers or fridges, having a company brand and identity is what will draw customers to you and make you distinguishable from your rivals. News media need to make money, even the BBC and other public service broadcasters, which are usually funded by licence fees, still need to justify their existence via public consumption in order to justify continuous receipt of those licensing revenues. Those news outlets that rely on paying customers and paying advertisers need to continue that custom as as well as attracting new ones. A style guide can not only act as quality control for the news product, but also can be incorporated into the media company’s identity. Many companies who trade on their reputation as solid and respected news brands have found the style guide they edit not only reinforces that perception among customers and peers, it can even take that identity to places where it might not have otherwise penetrated. Not many people outside of the American media industry are familiar with Associated Press, but their style guide, branded with AP’s logo and name has helped the agency build an enviable reputation even among staffers at rival agencies and the newspapers that rely on its newswire and imaging services. The Internet has also really helped AP, The Guardian and others build upon their media prestige. Anyone with a passing interest in grammar, news or journalism can now read their style guides from the comfort of their armchair, and free of charge as well. Making their style guides public for all the world to see rather than pinning a dog-eared copy to the editor’s noticeboard means AP and others can cement their reputations as providers of quality content – and their finances in the black. Some news outlets with formidable reputations, such as the New York Times, however keep their guides for internal use only, and trade only on their news production and advertising via more traditional tried and tested means.
EASE OF PRODUCTION: Editors are busy people. They have to constantly select stories for the front page and decide in split-second timing where stories have to go. They need to check their reporter’s copy to make sure everything looks perfect and that it fits. Without the presence of a style guide to set the rules, an editor would have to proofread everything twice as much. Dealing with three journalists using six different spellings of the same word would be mentally taxing for even the strongest of editors. If every reporter on the newsdesk is following the same stylistic beat then the editor can be a good enough conductor, rather than some flustered guy in a suit exasperatedly waving his or hands around trying to figure out if Glenmorangie is a ‘whisky’ or ‘whiskey’.
Some examples of questions that can be solved with a style guide
– Government: singular or plural, capital or lower case G?
– Spelling. Judgement or judgment? Targeting or targetting? Marketer or marketeer?
– Possessives: the Williams’ house or the Williams’s house?
– Figures: ten or 10, five million, 5 million or 5m?
– Case. Minister, minister; managing director, Managing Director, md or MD?
– Accents: cafe or café?
Who has style? – tips on setting up a style guide…and using it.
These are some tips for fledgling news organisations (or those who are rapidly expanding and are hiring new employees) on setting up a style guide and regulations and making sure its use becomes common practice in the newsroom or office.
– Set up ‘style sheets’ in the office. Have hard copy and online versions.
– Give them to all staff (including support staff/interns).
– Also make copies available to freelancers and contractors.
– Insist everyone uses them.
– Add to them as company decisions and linguistic changes are made.
– Revise them regularly. Once or twice a year is fine once the guide is fully established and entrenched.
– Include special spellings and banned words.
Style guide links.
Talking about style guides is one thing, but to really understanding the biology and usefulness of guides, it is a good idea to see some living, breathing examples for yourself. Here are a list of famous style guides and reference links to get a feel for them.
Guardian and Observer’s Style Guide (online edition)
The Guardian Style Guide (PDF version, July 2004)
Associated Press Stylebook (website/Twitter account inclusive)
BBC Journalism Academy news style guide (searchable website)
Telegraph style book (online A-Z version)
Europa Interinstitutional style guide (Publications Office) – for EU media publications.
Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – for UK English speakers, a subscription required.
Merriam-Webster dictionary and thesaurus – OED’s counterpart for US English speakers.
These links were curated from Google UK search and are current and correct as of March 2014.
The Half-Eaten Mind also has its own style guide. Our style guide is more concerned with editing and layout than grammar and word usage, but the unofficial policy is that this blog reports using the linguistic norms of British English, with spellings consistent with this dialect. It is not that I think the British version is better than other standards. It is simply practical for a UK-based news blog to use the accepted standard for newswriting on par with its location. This is also the dialect that I was brought up speaking and was educated in.
The HEM Style Guide was produced in its inaugural edition in December 2012. It was published in Stratford, east London – the site of our previous ‘office’-slash-rented room – and presented as a Microsoft Word document. The guide covers spelling and grammar in news articles and with direct quotes before moving onto language registers, copyright, obscene materials, stylistic procedures, blogpost layout and our likes and comments. As the Half-Eaten Mind is usually a one-man operation, our style guide does not necessarily need to be as comprehensive and even in existence as much as those of the major news providers. Nevertheless I have found it handy. A copy is available on request, although I will need to be revising the first edition in due course as the blog and its host WordPress develop.