Speaking of 'so-called values issues,' let's stop editorializing by saying 'so-called'

Warning: We're about to talk nerdy, as my friend Kenna Griffin puts it on her excellent "Prof KRG" blog for journalists.

The key point of today's post: In journalism, words matter.  

That's why I raised a stink not long ago over use of the term "controversial" to describe the religious freedom law that made headlines in Indiana:

And it's why I'm going to nitpick language in a USA Today story this week on Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee facing competition for evangelical voters:

The timely lede:

WASHINGTON — When former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee ran for president eight years ago, he scored a surprising upset in the opening Iowa GOP caucuses by appealing to the state's evangelical voters.
This time, he'll have a lot more company.
On Tuesday, Huckabee, 59, formally announced his bid for the Republican nomination in 2016 from his hometown of Hope, Ark. He portrayed himself as an economic populist, a protector of Social Security, a defender of Israel and the scourge of Iran. A former Southern Baptist minister and Fox News talk-show host, he also touched on issues that particularly resonate with many conservative Christians, including his opposition to same-sex marriage, his support of religious freedom laws and his concern about the country's moral standards.

Keep reading, and the writer summarizes the GOP candidates this way:

All of the major Republican contenders oppose abortion and oppose recognizing a constitutional right for same sex marriage, so-called values issues that are particularly important to many Christian conservatives. What's different this time are more concerted efforts by a half-dozen other contenders to target evangelical voters by talking openly about their faith and its importance in their lives and approach to governing.

So-called values issues?

Granted, the story — published on the front page of Wednesday's print edition — was labeled as a "News Analysis." (I don't see that tagline on the web version.)

But if USA Today wishes to report in an unbiased manner, why apply such an editorialized adjective to those issues? What exactly does "so-called" add to that sentence? Why not simply say "values issues" or "issues?"

The Associated Press Stylebook — the journalist's bible — has this entry on that term:

so called (adv.) so-called (adj.) Use sparingly. Do not follow with quotation marks. Example: He is accused of trading so-called blood diamonds to finance the war.

As long as we're talking nerdy, I'll address a couple of other terms that appear throughout the USA Today story: born-again Christian and evangelical.

One irony: The profusion of appeals underscores the continued influence of born-again Christians in the Republican Party — but it also could dilute their influence by dividing their votes among multiple candidates.

Who exactly is a born-again Christian?

The Religion Newswriters Association's Religion Stylebook highlights that term:

Theologically, all Christians claim to be born-again through the saving work of Jesus Christ; they just disagree over how it occurs. Catholics and Orthodox, for instance, say it occurs in the sacrament of baptism, which frequently takes place when the baptized person is too young to recall it. Evangelical Protestants emphasize being born-again as a personal, transformational experience that involves a deliberate commitment to follow Christ. Because the term tends to associate someone with a particular religious tradition, do not label someone a born-again Christian. Rather let the person label themselves, as in, who calls herself a born-again Christian.

To its credit, USA Today refers later in its story to some Iowa voters self-identifying that way:

Born-again voters are a powerful part of the Republican electorate, especially in two of the states that hold early contests. In Iowa, about six in 10 GOP caucus-goers identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians in 2008 and 2012. In South Carolina, 65% of Republican primary voters were evangelicals.

Still, journalists would do well to elaborate on what they mean — and who they mean — when they pepper a story with a term such as "born-again."

On a wider scale, "evangelical" already has become a catch-all term in reporting on 2016 Republican voters. But exactly who is an evangelical?

The RNA stylebook offers this guidance:

By definition, all Christians are evangelicals. The word evangelical is derived from the Greek evangelion, which means “good news” or “gospel.” But the term evangelical has generally come to mean Protestants who emphasize personal conversion; evangelism; the authority, primacy — and, usually — inerrancy of the Bible; and the belief that Jesus’ death reconciled God and humans. Evangelicals tend to be conservative theologically, but the terms evangelical and conservative Christian are not synonymous, though they both may apply to the same people. Fundamentalists, who generally separate themselves from what they see as a sinful culture, are distinct from evangelicals, who tend to embrace culture and use it to build up the church. In the early 21st century, religious identification surveys show that between a quarter and 40 percent of the U.S. population claims the evangelical label. Many, though not all, also identify with a specific tradition or denomination, ranging from mainline Protestant denominations to the Roman Catholic Church. In Europe, evangelical is a generic word for Protestants. Uppercase only when part of a formal name.

Got that?

Words matter, folks. 

In journalism, they really, really matter.

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