A lesson in style from Lady Bird

By Eric Freedman
The cover is faded, and it’s certainly not the most dramatic or eye-catching item on display at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
But it is important.

Lady Bird Johnson Style Guide

Lady Bird Johnson Style Guide

It’s Lady Bird Johnson’s newspaper stylebook — “Rules Governing Newspaper Style” — from her days as a journalism student at the University of Texas. She graduated with honors in 1934 and ventured into journalism — the media management side of things to be precise — in 1943 when she bought Austin radio station KTBC for $17,500. She later bought KTBC-TV, a CBS affiliate.
Those investments made millionaires of Lady Bird Johnson and her husband, the future president of the United States. When she died in 2012, her Dallas Morning News obituary noted that “she was the first wife of a president to become a millionaire in her own right. “
I’m not sure how much Lady Bird Johnson would have credited her use of the stylebook for her success as a media mogul — if she were alive, that is.
But truth be told, the Associated Press Stylebook is an important tool for learning to do journalism right and with precision. We use it in our School of Journalism classes and it’s the gold standard in newsrooms.
When Keith Shelton was a journalist-in-residence at the University of North Texas, he wrote a column called “Everything I ever needed to know I learned from my ‘Stylebook’” for Editor & Publisher magazine. I often hand out copies to my students and tell them the stylebook is their friend — with an admonition not to abandon their friend.
The column starts by recognizing the AP Stylebook’s most common use for, well, style, such as capitalization, abbreviation and dateline rules.
Then Shelton goes on to laud it as the source of a “pretty good basic education” — including information such as instructions to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, definitions, explanations of the difference between “oral” and “verbal, and “pardon, parole and probation,” and the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
What’s the correct way to handle names in Chinese, Korean or Arabic? Check the Stylebook. What’s Smokey the Bear’s middle name? He doesn’t have one — it’s Smokey Bear without the word “the.” Check the Stylebook. How do you handle religious titles? Check the Stylebook.
It also tells us how to determine the date of an assassination when the victim is shot one day but dies on a different day. P.S.: The answer is the day of the attack.
That said, the AP Stylebook isn’t wrapped in magical or mystical or religious aura. Most of its rules are, well, rules, not gospel. The purpose of any style manual — AP, American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association and so on — is consistency that makes things easy for readers. No bolt of lightning will strike journalists who confuse “among” and “between” when they’re careless or too lazy to look it up.
I confess to a few personal differences with the Associated Press style gurus.
For example, the Stylebook allows the use of “spokesman, spokeswoman and spokesperson.” I’ve banned them from my students’ assignments for two reasons. First, “spokesman” and “spokeswoman” are sexist labels and I’ve outlawed the use of sexist terms except in direct quotes. Second, spokes-anything fails to provide audiences meaningful information about their actual position: deputy press secretary? director of communications? intern who happens to answer the phone?
Another example: My pet peeve list says “over” should be used for spatial relationships, while “more” fits quantitative comparisons: over the rainbow but more than 50 pounds of flower. The Stylebook — which used to agree me — now says “over” is OK for both.
Just as the English language is evolving, so does the AP Stylebook. The 2017 edition, for instance, has almost 200 new and modified entries from the previous year’s edition. There’s also a new chapter on data journalism.
I’ll end with an observation from Shelton’s Editor & Publisher column — “There are many aspects of the Stylebook that are notoriously underused” — and with my own admonition: Use it wisely and often.

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