The journalism blog Romenesko (2/12/13) reprinted a “Style Watch” memo from Associated Press standards editor Thomas Kent and standards deputy Dave Minthorn, dated February 11:
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.
In other words, AP wouldn’t refer to a man married to another man as his husband, or a woman married to another woman as her wife, unless it was in a quotation or otherwise attributed to someone other than AP. The intention was presumably to remain neutral on the issue of marriage equality–but this policy does take a position, indicating that no matter what their state government says, AP is not going to consider legally married same-sex couples to be really married.
Unsurprisingly, AP went back to the drawing board and produced a slightly different policy, apparently before the first memo was leaked to the public:
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.
That’s an improvement, certainly, in that it allows AP to apply the terms usually used to described married people to men married to men and women married to women–but only if they can show that they “have regularly used those terms.” It’s odd to have a burden of proof in labeling marital relationships, and one expects that in many routine stories where a relationship is mentioned incidentally, reporters will not have a chance to ascertain the couple’s terminology history–and so, following AP style, husbands and wives will appear under the generic term “partner,” a term which in this context suggests a desire to avoid the messy question of marriage altogether.
Further, while it may seem polite to ask people what they call each other, in a news story “husband” and “wife” are not terms of endearment; they’re legal categories. When you mention someone’s father in a news report, you don’t call up the child to ask what they generally call him: Dad? Papa? Chief? You refer to the child’s father as a father, since that’s the standard term used for a male parent.
AP ought to have a rule that can be applied to all married people, regardless of whom they’re married to–rather than a separate-but-equal policy that applies only to those married to someone of the same sex.