The 17th edition of The Canadian Press Stylebook, a key reference book for Canadian journalists and students since its debut in 1940, came out a few weeks ago. I chatted with James McCarten, stylebook editor and CP’s Ottawa news editor, about the changes in this edition.
The previous stylebook came out in 2010. What’s new in this edition?
The main centrepiece of the new edition is the social media policy. It’s not the first time we’ve had something on the books, as it were, to help and inform people who work for CP as to how to manage their activity on social media in the context of the news agency and in the context of their daily journalism. But it’s an area that evolves very, very quickly. It wasn’t in the book in a comprehensive way, just mentioned as a great way to gather material, crowdsource grassroots opinion and so forth. [The new policy] coincided with the hiring of Andrew Lundy, our new director of digital. Over several months, we had a committee of reporters and other CP employees discuss what kind of model we’d have and how it should be framed. They were passionate discussions, because people feel quite strongly about social media and what they can do with it. We forged this policy to guide people in how it can be used as a tool, and the importance of using it as a tool both for information gathering and disseminating the work we do, and the pitfalls, the areas where you can get into trouble. Because it was so new, people tended to forget the long-existing policies of objectivity, fairness, accuracy, all the tenets of journalism, apply there too. It is a platform, a place where we’re engaged in discussions and sometimes arguments, and there’s a lot of back and forth. We wanted to ensure we were putting our best face forward representing the company when they were involved in these talks. Also, privacy issues come into play, and accuracy is fundamental. If you’re representing the company on Twitter or Facebook or anywhere else, you have to be in that framework of being a journalist first. … The policy itself is several pages along, with a great amount of detail, and I wanted a concise, condensed version to go in the book.
What other updates did you make?
Mostly tweaks, which is a fairly typical way to go. It’s the first edition of the stylebook I was involved in as an editor. We’re saving up more changes for down the road. We have a significant anniversary coming up, CP’s 100th anniversary in 2017, and I’m hoping we’ll mark that with comprehensive changes from cover to cover in the next five years or so.
Changes to the online edition happen between books. Does this book crystallize those changes?
It’s always a bit of crystallizing. It wasn’t an overhaul, but filling in a few spots where we don’t have anything in the book and we probably should. Suicide is a good example. It ended up in the section on sensitive subjects, and it will likely be expanded on in later editions. We were silent on that issue until now, and I felt we needed some acknowledgement that this is an area where you need to take your time, think carefully about what you’re doing and the impact it will have on other people, because it is a sensitive subject. Traditionally, in media, it was a verboten subject – the attitude still exists in many newsrooms that if it involves a suicide, you set it side, it’s not something you want to talk about. But that attitude has changed dramatically in recent years, dealing with prominent stories that put suicide at the forefront – First Nations are an example, and cyberbullying and teenage suicide are major issues. And it felt wrong to turn a blind eye to an issue that was dominating so much of the discussion in the national media on a daily basis. So this is us dipping our toe in the water a little bit. … There are lots of experts out there, with different opinions and perspectives on how to approach it. Get advice. Don’t just blunder through a story or dismiss a story out of hand because it touches on this issue. There is very prescriptive advice. If you go to certain mental health agencies or organizations, they often have tips for media, sometimes very heavy-handed, recommending certain language over others, putting certain facts in. We don’t want to go there, we just want to make sure it’s on people’s radar.
There’s new content on dealing with government and corporate officials.
As you know, I’m based in Ottawa now, and it’s been a prominent issue for us up here, very often dealing with government officials or other media relations folks who are less than forthcoming. This is a government that’s made it very clear that it takes a certain approach to the media, and we wanted to give advice on how best to handle situations in which someone who may in fact be being paid to deal with the media isn’t returning calls, or they’re demanding to see questions ahead of time, or refusing to do phone interviews. These are all things we encounter on a regular basis, and we wanted to provides some guidance on that, so that’s in there.
What was updated in the “unnamed sources” section?
It’s quite common among major media outlets, they now have a requirement that if you’re going to quote an anonymous source, you have to explain why, you have to cite the very specific reason why you’re choosing to grant anonymity to a particular person – for example, it’s someone who’s not authorized to speak to the media, or who doesn’t have permission to release certain details, or who’s fearing for their safety. We’re trying to give the reader as much guidance as possible as to why this person has a good reason for choosing not to use their name. The other thing it does, it forces the reporter to take a second look at why it is. There’s a tendency, very much in this day and age, to go to that default position. If somebody doesn’t want their name used because they don’t want to get in trouble, that’s not good enough. Hopefully this policy will get reporters to take a second look…and both parties are forced to think about it, and it discourages the use, the wanton use, of anonymous sources, but still permits it when necessary. There are definitely circumstances where it’s in the public interest for a person to be able to speak out without fear of reprisal. We’ve always tried to find the middle ground and provide flexibility. That section on anonymous sources, there’s a solid two pages now.
How much do controversial news stories inform or drive updates to the stylebook?
It certainly helps to put it on the front burner. When the things we’re dealing with are prominent, it puts them on my radar that much more quickly. An issue like suicide – Rehtaeh Parsons and all the other examples we’ve been wrestling with in recent months – that will bring the issue to my attention more quickly. So I’d say it’s a major driver. The book is a living thing, and we’re trying to keep it up to date and current.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There’s a section on using online images. A good example is the bus crash in Ottawa. It doesn’t take long for tribute pages and personal Facebook pages to acknowledge a tragedy or event. We felt we weren’t providing staff enough direct guidance on the use of pictures posted online. Sometimes there’s an attitude that if it’s online, it’s fair game, but that’s not always the case and we wanted to give more guidance.
There’s a part about obscenity. We made the change to the online stylebook years ago, around 2010, but this is the first print edition to reflect that. We needed to give ourselves more flexibility. We serve a multitude of different clients with different expectations and needs. Mainstream media clients, newspapers and the like … if there’s obscenity in the news report and it’s relevant and part of the news, oftentimes you’ll see that in print. But when you start to get into online… we’re serving a lot of corporate clients that have their own attitude towards these things. Maybe they have a family-oriented site. They tend to have a higher bar as to whether obscenity and profanity is permissible. So we’ve had to evolve our approach and provide multiple streams. Sometimes we’ll provide a story edited from that higher bar. And it became a very complicated issue, not easy to navigate. And the advent of the Internet has pushed a lot of language into the mainstream that traditionally wouldn’t be there. When Fucked Up won the Polaris Music Prize, we had an issue there. I think at one point we mentioned them as “a band whose name couldn’t be published in a family newspaper.” But at a certain point, you’re providing a disservice – we can’t name the band that won the Polaris Prize! It gets difficult. So our traditional approach, historically, we didn’t use devices, for example, asterisks instead of certain letters. We don’t specifically recommend that approach, but we’ve amended the policy that we no longer have a prohibition on it. If anything, the revisions in the policy have broadened it to let us use different strategies. And we feel that’s a reflection of what the media world at large needs to do now.
This interview has been edited for length. Images courtesy of James McCarten.
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