The Canadian Press provides advice and rules on how to write about sexual misconduct, race and ethnicity, mental illness, disability, climate change and COVID-19 to reflect ever-changing language

The latest edition of the Canadian Press Stylebook includes new sections in the “sensitive subject section” to guide reporters when writing about race, sexual misconduct, disability, addiction and dependence. 

An entirely new section, the stylebook’s sexual misconduct chapter explores the difference between harassment and assault, as well as the complexities of reporting on allegations of misconduct that have not been tested in court. 

The updated edition, published in October, describes the differences between “victim” and “complainant” and “survivor,” and avoiding sanitizing stories with phrases  like “womanizing” or “sex scandal.”

”Substance abuse, addiction and dependence” is another new section. The stylebook explains the differences: addiction affects the brain and causes compulsive and self-destructive behaviour. 

The treatable disease is what clinicians call a substance-use disorder. On the other hand, dependence can be either physical or mental; addiction tends to involve both. They are not interchangeable. 

Using pejoratives like “junkie,” “crackhead” or “drunk,” should be avoided because they don’t “characterize the condition as a problem or the behaviour as abuse.” The terms heavy, excessive, unhealthy, and risky are permissible. If the circumstances involve prescribed medications, then the term misuse is permissible, depending on the circumstances.

The expanded section on disabilities also emphasizes the importance of using “person-forward language.” James McCarten, stylebook editor, says the updated version explains that it is important to learn how those with disabilities mentioned in stories prefer to be described. Some consider their disability the least important part of their identity so put the person before the disability — for example, writing “a person with epilepsy” rather than “an epileptic.” For others, it is considered an integral part of their identity. For example, some people with autism embrace being called Autistic. Plus, if someone refers to themselves with an outdated term such as “cripple,” that must be explained to readers. 

The guide also addresses that not all advocacy groups, such as the parents of children with autism, speak from lived experience. “Be aware of this distinction and guard against giving such groups the same degree of editorial weight as those who self-advocate,” explains the guide. 

CP’s guidance on mental illness encourages writers to be specific about diagnosis and to use person-forward language — saying someone has a mental illness instead of calling them mentally ill. McCarten adds that using mental-health metaphors outside a medical context should be avoided, including, for the example, the metaphoric use of “schizophrenic”, jokingly referring to having post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a minor shock and characterizing frustration as making one go “crazy” or “mental.” 

One of the biggest problems reporters run into, says McCarten, is determining the appropriate language when writing about sensitive issues and translating terms to modern terminology that is deemed acceptable.

“Social media has played a major role in causing people to think more carefully about the words they use, and the terms and phrases they use,” said McCarten. 

In the updated edition, the race and ethnicity section has expanded, encouraging reporters to ensure their work reflects the diversity of Canada, not only in terms of sources but also subject matter and how stories are written, according to McCarten. There is a notation about the meaning of systemic racism and a warning against “othering” — defining a specific community in terms of its racial identity, rather than simply as Canadians, for instance. 

The style guide says to “think carefully about applying the word racist to an individual, unless citing credible claims made by others. Instead, describe in detail — but always within the bounds of taste and under supervisory guidance — their words and conduct, and don’t shy away from calling it what it is: racist language, racist attitudes or racist behaviour. Warn readers whenever necessary.”

In June 2020, the stylebook’s online version was updated to capitalize Black when used in reference to a person’s race. The latest print edition now reflects this change. It also recommends that writers “resist the abbreviation BIPOC, but if unavoidable, explain it: Black, Indigenous and people of colour.”

McCarten says Canadian Press supervisors, managers, and reporters discussed ways to apply equity, diversity and inclusion principles in their daily work. These included prioritizing diversity in hiring decisions and seeking sources from a broader spectrum of communities.

“A lot of what’s reflected in that (race and ethnicity) section came out of discussions we had all through last year on our equity, diversity and inclusion committee, where we were wrestling with a lot of these issues,” said McCarten. 

The stylebook addresses these changes because reporters encounter these issues in their daily work.

“You can’t plead ignorance anymore. You can’t ignore a particular group’s preference if they want to be referred to in a particular way,” McCarten adds. 

Other new features and advice include:

  • All-new substantial advice on how to write about the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other pandemics in general. Topics such as vaccines and variants are explained and  writers are told to avoid using “global pandemic” for its redundancy and to use coronavirus in reference only to the family of viruses to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs.

“There’s some practical advice on how to do your job when you have to stay six feet away from people when you have to wear a mask constantly, and you have to keep yourself safe. These are all important issues for folks in our line of work,” says McCarten.

  • A whole new section addresses how to write about climate change. Designed as an introduction to the subject, it breaks down terminology and jargon around the subject that might be hard for someone who isn’t well-versed in the issues. 

For example, figures should be put in everyday terms: “20 million tonnes conjures more of an image than 20 megatonnes,” and could be explained as the equivalent of taking 4.3 million cars off the road for a year, suggests the new section.

  • Guidance on writing about, with and for social media and the internet is also included. Social media, it advises, is a great tool to crowdsource information by “finding reliable sources online and utilizing their expertise, location and proximity to the news to extend your reach and capabilities as a journalist.”
  • There is also advice on how to promote stories on Twitter and Facebook, while “keeping true to basic newsroom principles of impartiality, fairness, accuracy and even-tempered discourse.”
  • A section also addresses how to navigate access-to-information laws including how to word requests, asking for electronic files to avoid photocopying fees and using the word “record” when asking for federal material, because it includes everything from photographs, audio tapes, videotapes and computer disks to printed reports, letters and memorandums.

McCarten took over editing the book in 2010, and initially thought he wouldn’t need to make a lot of changes because it was a “pretty complete document.” He quickly learned that wasn’t the case. 

“You can open a story these days, and it touches on issues of social media, touches on modern day politics, touches on anything. And you’ll see words in there that a person reading it 10 years ago would not recognize,” says McCarten. 

The last print edition was in 2018. Canadian Press updates the stylebook every two to three years. In between, it issues updates to the Caps and Spelling chapters, a companion edition. 

The book is never perfect, and there’s almost more to do.

“It’s a moving target all the time.”

Hard copies of the 19th edition of the Canadian Press Stylebook can be bought from Indigo, or directly from the Canadian Press website. If you prefer the online version, one-year subscriptions are available for $49.95.