AP Styles ‘Deniers’ into ‘Doubters,’ Creating Newsroom Skeptics

As the Associated Press tries to create consensus on what to call those who question climate science, more disagreement ensues.

Is it denial or doubt? The Associated Press shifts gears. Credit: Matt Brown, via Flickr
Is it denial or doubt? The Associated Press shifts gears. Credit: Matt Brown, via Flickr

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A week after the Associated Press changed its official style on how to describe people who do not accept climate change science, its attempt to clarify the issue has resulted in little clarity. There is little agreement among climate reporters on if and how they would follow the new recommendation, and whether it will make any difference.

The AP’s official stylebook––a widely used guide on word choice, grammar and other elements of writing––advised reporters to stop using “skeptics” or “deniers” and adopt “climate change doubters” or “those who reject mainstream climate science.”

Some reporters praised the change, while others vowed to stick to the old terminology, or only accepted part of the new guideline. Although the stylebook is meant to standardize word choice across newsrooms, the change has failed to create a consensus on the term.

Ryan Grim, Huffington Post’s Washington bureau chief, said in an article last week that his website would continue to use the word denier. “In no other circumstance would the complete rejection of science be treated so gently,” he wrote. “And it is only being done because, over the past decade, under intense pressure, an entire political party has embraced denialism.”

The reason for removing “denier,” according to the Associated Press announcement, is that the word “has the pejorative ring of Holocaust denier.” Meanwhile, “skeptic” was removed due to complaints from scientists who consider themselves genuinely skeptical, such as those who “debunk mysticism, ESP and other pseudoscience.” Those scientists say they do not want to be associated with people who challenge the established consensus of climate science.

The stylebook has enormous influence among journalists. Many newsrooms (including InsideClimate News) follow AP style, and the manual is continuously updated as the editors consider word usage, accuracy and other language trends.

Brian Calvert, managing editor of High Country News, a magazine that covers natural resources and politics in the American West, said the updated entry “reflects the state of climate change and the narrow segment of people who doubt it.”

The stylebook editors have “considered these things heavily and always have,” Calvert said. “When they make a decision like this it’s not made lightly.”

The dispute over “doubters” continues a long-running debate over the best way to describe the small group of people who reject the overwhelming scientific consensus that the earth’s climate is warming, that human activity––primarily the burning of fossil fuels––is behind the change, and that there will be grave consequences if warming remains unchecked.

Efforts to characterize these individuals is complicated by the variety of their opinions. Some do not believe the earth is warming at all, while others acknowledge rising temperatures but attribute the change to purely natural causes.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said it’s better to describe the nuances of someone’s position, instead of using a label that’s “overly broad.”

The phrase “those who reject mainstream climate science” is a much better alternative than “doubters,” “skeptics” or “deniers,” since it casts them as outliers who challenge the consensus of an entire field of science, she said.

Seth Borenstein, the AP science reporter who helped guide the stylebook editors on the latest change, said he also prefers “those who reject…”

The longer phrase is more precise, he said, but because it doesn’t fit in a headline, “doubters” was chosen as shorthand.

When it comes to politicians who reject climate science, Borenstein said it’s best to explain their positions using their own words—such as Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe’s claim that global warming is a hoax.

Borenstein said experienced climate reporters would be able to describe each person’s position accurately without using a shorthand. He expects the stylebook entry on “doubters” will be more helpful for reporters who don’t specialize in covering climate.

InsideClimate News reached out to more than a dozen reporters and media outlets to get their thoughts on the stylebook update. (For the record, InsideClimate has decided to continue using “denier.” ICN publisher David Sassoon said the word is particularly appropriate in light of a recent ICN investigation that revealed Exxon initially accepted and embraced climate science before shifting its stance to lead a far-reaching campaign of denial).

Other media had varying reactions:

— “I’m not convinced ‘doubters’ is any better than ‘deniers’ or ‘skeptics,'” Geoff Grant, director of digital media at Climate Central, said in an email. “To me, they all seem pejorative.” But Grant said he will use “those who reject mainstream climate science.”

— At High Country News, Calvert sees a distinction between “doubters” and “those who reject mainstream climate science.”

There are those who believe the world is warming, but they may not be familiar with the science and doubt that humans are causing it, he said, so “doubters” is the correct phrase for them. “I think that’s a segment of the population that does read our magazine, and we try to speak to them.”

— Steve Curwood, host of the weekly radio show Living on Earth said, “I do think using the word ‘doubter’ is OK, but ‘denial’ is more accurate in certain cases––if people know the truth but deny it as Exxon did according to [the recent InsideClimate News investigation], there’s no doubt or skepticism––there is outright denial.”

— Philip Corbett, who oversees language and style for The New York Times, said he doesn’t expect the Times to “adopt or mandate one and only one officially approved set of labels to describe this issue.”

“In general, we try to avoid doing that in politically contentious areas…. The better approach, often, is to use a variety of accurate, descriptive terms, and when possible to be specific in describing the views of a particular group or individual,” he wrote in an email.

— Maria Gallucci, energy and environment reporter for the International Business Times said she intends to follow the new guidelines. The AP makes “a fair argument for using ‘doubter’ over ‘skeptic’ or ‘denier,’ particularly since those last two terms are so loaded,” she wrote in an email (note: Gallucci is a former InsideClimate News reporter).

A word like “denier” better captures how some people “vehemently & loudly reject” climate science, she added. “But, I’m not sure the semantics matter much compared to the existential threat of climate change.”