Whatchamacallit: Media struggle to describe religious freedom laws in Indiana, Arkansas

According to something called the Global Language Monitor, there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language. (I don't see any specifics on the almost-a-word that is not a full word, but presumably, it's missing 20 percent of its letters.)

Not so fast, says Oxford Dictionaries' website, which suggests there's "no single sensible answer" to the question because "it's so hard to decide what actually counts as a word":

The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. And these figures don't take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).

With all those word choices, you might think that finding just the right one to use in any given situation wouldn't be too difficult (right, Mark Twain?).

Yet major news organizations struggle with how to describe those much-discussed Religious Freedom Restoration Act measures in Indiana and Arkansas — background here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here if you somehow missed our previous posts on this topic.

Early in the Indiana fight, the catchphrase "controversial religious freedom bill" prevailed — as we pointed out, questioning whether the adjective "controversial" slants coverage toward opponents. We also noted that the Associated Press Stylebook — "the journalist's bible" — recommends avoiding that term.

Throughout the flurry of news coverage, the newspaper at the heart of Hoosier headlines — the Indianapolis Starhas insisted on putting scare quotes around "religious freedom":

The Times' lede refers to "what was billed as a religious freedom law," as opposed to "a religious freedom law." Later, the story mentions "state laws focused on what is called religious freedom," as opposed to "state laws focused on religious freedom." Is the Times employing ordinary journalistic precision? Or subtly editorializing?

At the Washington Post, the terminology used remains "controversial religious freedom law."

An enlightening Dallas Morning News piece on the "broad and surprisingly varied" support for Texas' 15-year-old law refers to the Indiana and Arkansas measures as "so-called religious freedom laws."

A Reuters story goes with this balanced description: "the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — which to some meant religious freedom and to others a license to discriminate."

Over at The Associated Press, the phrase "religious objections laws" seems to have become the unofficial style. Perhaps this terminology represents an attempt at neutral language that favors neither side in a battle pitting religious freedom proponents vs. gay rights advocates?

"I actually like that ... it feels more specific," one Godbeat pro says, concerning the "religious objections bill" language. "I wish AP would come out with a style so we could all be more consistent!"

However, tmatt points out:

But the actual constitutional issue is the First Amendment and religious liberty. If this was about Muslims being required to serve pork to customers who requested it, we would have no problem using religious liberty language.

Meanwhile, a religious freedom proponent complains:

Of course, that is still negative framing. Instead of allowing people to assert a legal principle that actually exists (religious freedom), they are objectors demanding exemptions … or constitutional crumbs.

My opinion? I don't like scare quotes or news stories and headlines that editorialize. Beyond those offenses, I sympathize with journalists who struggle to provide fair, impartial coverage using accurate-yet-neutral language.  

Your turn, GetReligion readers: What terminology would you recommend? Please leave a comment or tweet us at @getreligion. 

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