Was Paganism Left Out of the New AP Stylebook Religion Chapter?

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In May 2014 The Associated Press (AP) published the latest version of the AP Stylebook – the go-to writing guide for journalists and editors. The updated edition includes a new religion chapter, which, as AP describes,”pulls in some existing terms from the Stylebook’s A – Z entries and adds many new ones, covering the world’s major denominations.” In its announcement, AP expressed an interest in reflecting America’s “changing religious landscape” by including minority faiths.

For “Godbeat” or religion-based journalism, this is big news – more style standards in more detail for more religions. What were the changes and additions? And, more importantly, how will they affect mainstream news reports on stories involving Pagans and Heathens? Will “Pagan” and “Paganism” finally be capitalized?

If you are not a writer, you may ask, “Why should I care?” The AP Stylebook does not affect you directly. However, it does affect you indirectly. The guide is used by journalists and editors all over the country as a writer’s “bible,” if you will. While the AP Stylebook is not the only guide of its kind, it is one of the front-runners that establishes a style standard for journalism that is dependable and regular.

The guide, for example, solves those ever-frustrating grammatical debates over commas and semi-colons. It recommends date and time abbreviations, fixes transition words, and clarifies what should be or should not be capitalized. All of its suggested rules and information are absorbed into the articles published in American newspapers and magazines since the 1950s.

Within the “Godbeat” journalism world, the word “Pagan,” when referring to modern religious practice, is rarely capitalized. In October 2013, Oberon Zell reached the tipping point on this issue after seeing the word “paganism” in a CNN Religion Blog news article entitled, “For Some Wiccans Halloween is a Real Witch.” As noted in Circle Magazine, Oberon said, “The issue has annoyed me for decades, and I have tried to launch this campaign numerous times over the years.” When he questioned the CNN journalist, Oberon was told to “contact AP and Webster.” (Circle Magazine, Issue 116, February 2014)*

So Oberon did just that. In November, he launched a campaign to change journalism standards. With the help of friends and colleagues, he formed the Coalition to Capitalize Pagan. The group, then, drafted a letter to the editors of the AP Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style and Religion Newswriter’s Association Style Guide. After the Coalition finalized the letter, 61 Pagan writers, teachers, scholars and authors signed it. Those signatories included recognizable names like Raymond Buckland, Vivianne Crowley, Starhawk, Margot Adler, Patrick McCollum and Selena Fox.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  @Doug88888

[Photo Credit: Doug88888/Flickr]

The letter was mailed in January but received little to no acknowledgement from the organizations. The University of Chicago Press responded with the following: “Thank You for your message. I am forwarding it to the reference department, which oversees the revision of The Chicago Manual of Style.”

During that process, the Coalition also decided to turn to the public for help. It launched a change.org petition that eventually garnered over 450 signatures from people around the world. In February, Circle Magazine published the article entitled “Quest to Capitalize Pagan” including a call-to-action that read:

If we cannot offer linguistic respect to our own labels, how can we continue our quest to demand that respect from outsiders? Circle Magazine asks that you consider making this simple personal change in your daily work. Be part of the quest by always capitalizing Pagan and Paganism.

Oberon eventually purchased his own copy of the 2013 AP Stylebook only to discover a bigger problem. The guide makes no reference to the word Pagan at all. He said:

I am completely mystified … For the past 45 years I have been giving interviews on Paganism to newspaper journalists, always emphasizing that “Pagan” and “Paganism” are the proper names for our religion, and should thus be capitalized in that context. The interviewing reporters always understand this, and agree. But every single time, when the story appears in the paper, “pagan” and “paganism” are printed in lowercase. When we have gotten back to the reporters who did the interview, they are always apologetic, and they tell us that the copy editors changed the capitalization, “because that’s what the AP Stylebook said.”

Since that time, the AP Stylebook has been updated with a new chapter meant to reflect the modern religious experience. Did Oberon’s quest have any effect?  Did the word “Pagan” make the cut?

The answer is no.

The 2014 AP Stylebook does indeed have an expansive in-depth chapter on religion which includes definitions and details on a variety of minority religion terminology such as Brahmin (Hindu) or gurdwara (Sikh). The guide includes short informational entries on Baha’i, Buddhism and other non-Abrahamic faiths as well as minority sects of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It says that Christmastime is one word and suggests using Hanukkah as the standard spelling for the Jewish holiday. However, it says nothing about “Paganism.”

In fact the updated religion chapter makes no mention at all of modern Pagan or Heathen religions. It does not include Druidry or Druidism, Wicca or Asatru. With the exception of Yule, it does not recognize the names of Pagan sabbats or other important festivals and holy days. The word “pagan” only appears once in a recommendation to capitalize the names of mythological gods and goddesses such as Zeus, Athena and Poseidon.

When asked if the inclusion of modern Paganism had been considered for the chapter, the editors responded immediately saying that the Stylebook uses the dictionary for such groups. So what does Webster say? The online version includes a definition for Neo-Pagan and Neo-Paganism both of which use a capital letter. The same dictionary, however, does not include an individual entry for the term “Pagan” with capitalization. The two “pagan” entries define the term as those people who are anti-religious or polytheists from ancient Greek or Rome. Webster does include an entry for Wicca but no other practice.

Merriam-Webster-logoBut that is only Webster. Other dictionaries have different entries with varying suggestions on capitalization and meaning.  Adding to the confusion is the free Religion Newswriter’s Association Stylebook, which does include references to modern Paganism including associated terminology and practices. However, across the board, the editors do not capitalize the word “Pagan.”

Due to the general lack of clarity and style specification, news editors and journalists are left to their own devices when writing about Pagan and Heathen religions. The editor must decide on which book, entry or guide to rely on for his or her media outlet. The issue facing the Coalition and the quest for consistent representation of Paganism in the media is far more complicated than originally thought.

On June 24 at 2:30pm, AP religion writer Rachel Zoll, who assisted Stylebook editors in creating the new AP Stylebook chapter, will be hosting a Twitter chat to discuss the changes to the guide, the inclusions and exclusions, and about religion journalism in general. Go to Twitter and follow the #APStyleChat hashtag to hear what she has to say.


* Editorial Note: I wrote the original Circle Magazine article published in February and personally interviewed Oberon Zell about his work on this subject. That article and every one of my Wild Hunt articles uses the AP Stylebook. I have also developed my own style guidelines on usage and capitalization of religion-specific terms which are all based on my growing knowledge of Pagan and Heathen practices rather than on any given book or guide. That standard is and will continued to be applied here at The Wild Hunt. However I do look forward to a day when my AP Style Guard application forces me to capitalize ‘Pagan’ and tells me what it means in modern terms.