In my job as assistant news editor at The Frederick News-Post, one of my ongoing duties has been keeping and updating the newspaper’s internal stylebook. I’ve made piecemeal changes and additions over the years, and I did a complete, A-to-Z update a couple of years ago.The time seems right to refresh it again, not only because entries inevitably become obsolete or incomplete, but also because of the changes Frederick County has seen in recent years. One more such change is on the horizon: After the November election, the county will shift to charter government, i.e., from the current five-member Board of County Commissioners to a seven-member County Council led by a county executive.
What is a stylebook?
A stylebook covers points of journalistic usage, from the mundane (words or figures: five miles, or 5 miles?) to the legal (homicide vs. murder or manslaughter) to the sensitive (protecting the identities of certain alleged crime victims, especially children and alleged victims of sex crimes, and ensuring that copy does not assume that a person is guilty of a crime merely because he or she is charged with one). And while it is important that our local style guide be complete, it’s also vital that it not be so big or unwieldy that it is difficult for reporters and editors to use. The News-Post’s style guide is intended to complement, not replace, The Associated Press Stylebook. We at The News-Post follow AP style, with small but notable local exceptions and additions.
For example ...
Autopsy: It is redundant to say “an autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death,” “the body was taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to determine the cause of death” or “autopsy results were inconclusive as to the cause of death.” It’s fine to say “An autopsy will be performed” or “Autopsy results were inconclusive.”
Ejected: Don’t use this police jargon when describing car crashes and the like. Say the person was thrown from the car, motorcycle or other vehicle.
Home in: You hone a skill, but you home in (not “hone in”) on something. Memory aid: Think of a homing device.
Official, officials: Avoid using as a noun to describe people who work in the private sector. Corporate executives should be called executives rather than company officials. Use spokesman or spokeswoman in generic references to public relations people. If the gender of the person is not known, use representative rather than spokesperson.
Power failure: Not power outage, which is industry euphemism. Or recast to say that customers lost power, as appropriate.
VA: The abbreviation is still used, but the government agency is the Department of Veterans Affairs, not the Veterans Administration.
Water heater: Not “hot water heater.”
In the weeks ahead I will ask reporters, editors and photographers for suggestions on clarifying and simplifying entries, or perhaps addressing an issue on which both AP and local style are silent.
Got a question or suggestion about usage or style in The News-Post? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.