Styling an online news niche?

Aside from offering useful reminders on ‘i before e’ exemptions, and the proper placement of apostrophes, news style guides sometimes offer an insight into the values of news organisations, and the social mores of their audiences.

Take guidance on use of the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ in news, for example.

The BBC suggests its (radio) journalists accord with the following code:

…some people believe the word “homosexual” has negative overtones, even that it is demeaning. Most homosexual men and women prefer the words “gay” and “lesbian”. Either word is acceptable as an alternative to homosexual, but “gay” should be used only as an adjective. “Gay” as a noun – “gays gathered for a demonstration” – is not acceptable. If you wish to use homosexual, as adjective or noun, do so. It is also useful, as it applies to men and women.

The Times style guide says:

gay fully acceptable as a synonym for homosexual or lesbian.

And the Guardian style guide says:

gay: Use as an adjective rather than a noun: a gay man, gay people, gay men and lesbians not “gays and lesbians”

Meanwhile, in the US news producers including AP, New York Times & Washington Post have all been working from the same principal for a long time now:

The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post all restrict usage of the term “homosexual” — a word whose clinical history and pejorative connotations are routinely exploited by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered, and which, as The Washington Post notes, “can be seen as a slur.” AP and New York Times editors also have instituted rules against the use of inaccurate terminology such as “sexual preference” and “gay lifestyle.”

By contrast with this earnest and sensitive approach, some of those ‘culturally traditional’ sources in the US continue to persevere in their battle for control of language with such zeal that absurd consequences can abound – see The Dangers of Auto-Replace.

Getting back to Blighty, the Telegraph style book offers markedly different guidance to any of it’s UK competitors:

gay: permissible in headlines if essential but use homosexual in text.

There is no sense of equivalence here. Instead, this coded compromise hints at the pervasive nature of the permissive web surfer.

For ‘essential’ we surely can’t discount ‘essential to search traffic’. Words in <title> tags take precedence over terms used in body-text when it comes to search ranking, the significance of which becomes apparent when you bear in mind that last year 50% of telegraph.co.uk traffic came via search.

Off-line, The Telegraph balances alienating the ‘pink pound’ against reaching out to the paper’s older, more socially conservative readers to whom the term ‘homosexual’ is preferred to ‘gay’.

Online there is not yet such a thing as a ‘pink pageview’ – search favours the majority term over the minority one (check Google Trends for the runaway winner here). This simple market truism might have financial, as well as political consequences for any news outlet swimming against the tide.

But of course all of the above style advice is intended for the present – so what of the future?

Politics (and potential offence) aside, if telegraph.co.uk’s core readership, who might comprise a future subscription-base, expect to read (and find) news containing those terms they prefer rather than those terms the rest of society uses, then this might present another facet to the development of niche online news.

Of course it could be argued that this approach would risk alienating younger readers whose preferred choice of terminology may render certain words and phrases obsolete.

But this assumes that a hardcore of younger people (and future subscribers) won’t align themselves to a political outlook which prefers usage of one term over the other, which given the nature of politics seems unlikely.

It could equally be argued that people don’t care sufficiently enough about the political and social significance of these (or any other) terms, to the extent that it would influence their decision to spend money on information provided elsewhere free-of-charge.

But on the other hand, web usability tells us that reader-experience is core to creating successful online copy and branding, and that developing trust (which might include the consistent use of preferred words and language) is key to success on the web.

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