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What the Associated Press Marriage Memo Means

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GLAAD reached out to the Associated Press today for clarification on a memo reportedly circulated today that appears to instruct writers to use different vocabulary to describe legally married same-sex couples than they would use to describe opposite-sex couples.

This morning, journalist and media reporter Jim Romenesko posted this item, regarding an internal memo from the Associated Press that covered how they choose to refer to a same-sex couple that is married:

SAME-SEX COUPLES: We were asked how to report about same-sex couples who call themselves “husband” and “wife.” Our view is that such terms may be used in AP stories with attribution. Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.

Later, AP spokespeople told Romenesko that the memo had been revised and reissued, and that this was the correct version:

SAME-SEX COUPLES: We were asked how to report about same-sex couples who call themselves “husband” and “wife.” Our view is that such terms may be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms (“Smith is survived by his husband, John Jones”) or in quotes attributed to them. Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.

Let's take it sentence by sentence.

The usage of quotes in the first sentence might not be meant in the same way you would the phrase "so-called."  (Like if I were to insult Brand X's Ice Cream by calling it Brand X's "Ice Cream.") Quotations are also commonly used to note words/objects that are being referenced from another context or conversation. (Like if I were to tell someone to capitalize the "P" in "iPhone.") 

The initial version of the second sentence definitely required clarification, and the second version provides it. This basically just says AP is not going to demand to see a marriage license if a couple calls each other husband and husband or wife and wife.

The third sentence is where the AP has received the most criticism. The words "partner" and "couple" are technically and legally accurate to describe same-sex couples who are in Civil Unions, and this already states that AP will call those couples husbands and/or wives if they refer to themselves as such. But those terms are absolutely not appropriate to describe same-sex couples who are married, and this sentence seems to be saying that AP actually prefers them. This sentence, if taken literally as written, implies a value judgement on the part of AP – that same-sex marriages "generally" need vocabulary that differentiates them from opposite-sex marriages, and that said vocabulary should consist of words that also apply to unmarried couples.

As this does appear to have been from an internal memo and not the Stylebook itself, it's posslble that the phrase "same sex marriages" was included here by mistake, since those marriages were already covered in the previous sentence. As written, this last sentence would seem to directly contradict the one that preceded it.

The AP does have a history of using the terms "husband" and "wife" when speaking about same-sex couples (here are a couple of recent examples) so it's not evident what, exactly, writers are supposed to take away from this.

This is why their clarification needs clarification.

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