The Associated Press’s Orwellian recommendations for journalists

June 22, 2023 • 10:00 am

If you’re going to use the adjective “Orwellian” to refer to authoritarianism and unsavory manipulation of people’s thoughts, you must have read at least two of his pieces: the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), free online from The Orwell Foundation. They are of course connected; both involve the psychological manipulation of people for bad political ends, the former by government actions and the latter by manipulation of words.  Here are two bits from his essay:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

. . . Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

I’m sure that investigative journalist Gerald Posner didn’t write this piece out of right-winged animus or transphobia (he used to be the investigative reporter for The Daily Beast), but rather out of outrage about how other people are trying to change language to achieve political ends. And, at any rate, what matters is not his politics, but the veracity of his reports, which you can check for yourself.  His issue is the language around coverage of transgender politics, and his object is the Associated Press Style Guide, which, as he notes, is

. . . . the leading style and usage guide for many newspapers, magazines, newsrooms, and public relations offices. Journalists and editors largely abide by its grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules and specific styles for everything from numbers to acronyms.  AP editors are supposed to regularly update the Stylebook in order to keep up with changes in language and societal norms.

Modern woke political language however, doesn’t undergo a natural evolution over time; rather, it is imposed from above, and here it’s imposed by the AP Style Guide.

Click to read the piece on his “Just the Facts” Substack site:

Posner is approaching the 3,000 word (!) article on “Transgender Coverage” as an investigative journalist, giving examples of recommended and un-recommended usages. But he does come to a conclusion: it’s ideological and inaccurate.  You can see the data at the “Transgender Coverage Topical Guide” entry at the AP Stylebook.

And here’s Posner’s take on it all. Most of it I agree with, but one or two of his criticisms seems to me not wrong, but a tad exaggerated.

The revised Transgender entry runs 3,000 words, setting forth what it says is the acceptable standard for journalists when “writ[ing] about and interview[ing] transgender people.”  It starts with what seems like a good rule, that reporters must use “accurate, sensitive and unbiased language.”

The editors then proceed to trash the concepts of accuracy and “no bias.” The guide dictates the use of language that in some cases is factually incorrect. Or, as Orwell might have said, the AP editors did their best “to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Language matters.  Unfortunately, those in charge of setting the rules for the use of it are titling the standards to affect the coverage.

Sometimes, the AP Stylebook contradicts established science, other times ignore inconvenient evidence to the contrary, and repeatedly adopts rules that endorse only one side of what is a vigorous ongoing controversy.

Here are two examples of bad recommendations and one that I think doesn’t matter all that much. Posner’s words are indented, and the AP Stylebook recommendations in bold, italic type. My words are flush left.


 “Use the term sex assigned at birth instead of biological sex, birth gender, was identified at birth as, born a girl and the like…. Avoid terms like biological sex, along with biological male and biological female.”

On the issue of biology being so passé, the AP is insistent. A dozen times the style guide reinforces that a person’s gender is “assigned” at birth.  Richard Ostling, a former AP national reporter (now a GetReligion contributor), notes that, “That’s central to LGBTQ+ insistence that each infant’s gender is arbitrarily imposed from outside and subject to change, so this word allies the news media with one outlook in an intense societal debate.”

Ditching biological sex in one species of animal but not in every other species is unconscionable.  Why is human “gender” (they of course mean “biological sex”) assigned at birth instead of recognized at birth? When I divide piles of fruit flies into sexes, I am not “assigning their sex”, but recognizing it based on sexually dimorphic characters that are nearly perfectly correlated with biological sex. (Remember biologists define sex by the nature of the reproductive system that produces either large, immobile gametes [“females’], or small, mobile gametes [“males’]). I’ve dissected gazillions of male and female flies, and I’ve never seen a “normal-appearing” male with ovaries. (We very rarely get gynandromorphs: flies that are part male and part female, produced when an X chromosome gets lost during cell division in an embryo. But these are developmental accidents, not a “third sex”, and gynandromorphs occur in many animal species).  It would be strange indeed if sex was defined and recognized in animals and plants—except in H. sapiens!

This wording in bold is, of course, there to reinforce the gender activists’ wrongheaded claim that sex a “spectrum” and not binary.  And they claim this because gender (social sex roles) are more of a spectrum—though still bimodal.  It’s the reverse naturalistic fallacy: what you want to be true in nature is what you must see in nature. This language is used to reinforce that fallacy.


If children meet guidelines and are showing signs of puberty, they can begin taking puberty blockers — fully reversible prescription medication that pauses sexual maturation, typically given in injections or skin implants.

The AP editors — without any supporting citation or caveat — set the rule that journalists writing transgender stories must remember that puberty blockers are “fully reversible.”  Mixing some incorrect science into the style guide might be simple enough but has serious consequences.  That is especially true when the science shows there is a litany of serious, long term adverse effects to children who have been on those drugs. I highlighted some of those side effects in my recent WJS piece, “The Truth About Puberty Blockers.”

At least the style guide admits that “the evidence is mixed” about whether hormone treatments and surgery resolve the “stress, depression and suicidal thoughts” to which “transgender youth and adults are prone.”

The effects of puberty blockers, as we are coming to learn, are almost certainly not “fully reversible.” Nor are they without side effects. Nor are they able to “pause” puberty fully and innocuously while a child makes up its mind. This language is straight-out deceptive, and again plays into the agenda of extreme gender activists, who argue that there’s no harm involved in stopping sexual maturation while you decide whether to assume a gender different from the one you have.


“[In reporting on transgender people in sports] Don’t refer to male or female hormones. All people have the same hormones; only their levels vary. If discussion of hormones is needed, name the specific hormone(s)…. If transgender players of any gender are banned from playing on teams in line with their gender, say that.”

This is embarrassingly disingenuous. Men and women do indeed produce estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone but the ways their bodies manufacture those hormones means they have completely different blood concentrations and interactions with organs and muscles.

By ignoring the differences between male and female hormones is to ignore the differences that are key to why biological males have a physical advantage over biological females in athletics. Bone size and strength, greater muscle mass, and higher rates of metabolizing and releasing energy cannot be fully reversed after puberty. Males are, among with biological advantages, are more powerful at kicking and hitting; jumping higher; extra endurance; faster swimming and running speeds.

The results of a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2020 showed that different hormones between transmen and transwomen made a significant difference in “body composition and athletic performance.”

I think by now people know this, but the levels of testosterone and estrogen do differ on average between males and premenopausal females, with average testosterone levels very different and the distributions virtually nonoverlapping.  Posner is right that hiding hormone names is a way to minimize the profound effects that different levels of testosterone and (to a lesser extent) estrogen have on secondary sex traits, especially those involved in sports like size and musculature.  But I don’t really care if they use “testosterone” instead of “male hormone” because, as the AP says, both hormones are found in both sexes. So long as writers emphasize the effect that different levels of these hormones (especially “T”) have on secondary sex traits, I’m satisfied.

I do recommend, by the way, that you read Carole Hooven’s book T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. It’s a good, accurate, and enlightening read.

There are others recommendations from the A.P. that you can read and assess, and Posner finishes with the AP’s suggestions about how to use phrases that actually “present still contested concepts as settled,” like that it’s fine to use “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women,”

Posner finishes with a two-sentence zinger that sums up his take on these Orwellian attempts to control language. He puts the AP recommendation in bold italics:

Of course, these rules are often more about following an ideology than acting as the premier style guide. If anyone doubts that, “Do not use the term transgenderism, which frames transgender identity as an ideology.”

28 thoughts on “The Associated Press’s Orwellian recommendations for journalists

  1. “Use the term sex assigned at birth instead of biological sex, birth gender, was identified at birth as, born a girl and the like…. Avoid terms like biological sex, along with biological male and biological female.”

    I read someone yesterday who pointed out that “biological sex” is redundant, because there is only biological sex. That would be true for male and female as well. Let’s keep writing simple.

    1. That’s actually one of the reasons given in the AP style guide:

      Avoid terms like biological sex, along with biological male and biological female, which opponents of transgender rights sometimes use to refer to transgender women and transgender men, respectively. They are also redundant because sex is inherently biological.

      They’re obviously not trying to do away with the concept of biological sex, but drawing a distinction between sex and gender.

      1. Well, opponents of transgenderism should push back against the terms “transgender women” (and “TG men”), because “transgender women” are (biologically sexed) men, not women. The term “biological male” is necessary only because the activists want us to think that a person with a penis and male secondary sex characteristics is female just because he says he is. Calling him a biological male is our way of saying, “No, you’re not.”

        The idea that gender is something like a soul, different from personality, that should trump visible biology is finally starting to ebb.

    1. Canadian doctors have been muzzled. Promoting or God forbid doing “conversion therapy” is a federal criminal offence that could get you jail time. As in some state laws, conversion therapy specifically includes counseling intended to have the patient become psychologically comfortable and accepting of the body s/he was born into. For a practising physician, which I am not, here is the risk if she spoke out publicly against the whole premise of mutilation as gender-affirming care. The next patient she saw for whom she advised wait and see, revisit in 6 months, instead of prescribing hormones on demand, might take this recommendation as trying to “convert” him. (Not giving me what I want, right now, is malpractice anyway, right?). If he complains to the police, the doctor is now in for a world of hurt and her public statements become relevant to guilty mind.

      So if you are going to recommend wait and see, don’t breathe a word about your opinions on anything to do with transgenderism in public. At least then you have plausible deniability, that it was individualized treatment.

      Ironically, the enthusiasts for drugs and surgery can boast loudly and shamelessly of their miraculous,cures, because they’re on the right side.

      For now.

  2. Sex: “A person’s sex is usually assigned at birth by parents or attendants, sometimes inaccurately. Sex often corresponds with but is not synonymous with gender, which is a social construct.”

    One of the horrible things about this not-very-informative “style guide” is the way it keeps mixing up sex and gender. Is it sex which is assigned at birth or gender? They apparently use both even though “sex … is not synonymous with gender.”

    While makes some sense to say a social construct is forced onto a child, so that the frilly pink baby dresses signifying femininity may be later rejected by a no-frills young girl who prefers overalls, this is never what they mean by a socially-constructed gender. They mean a socially-constructed sex.

    If your words are confused, your thoughts are confused.

  3. For over 20 years, WPATH was happy to call its publication the International Journal of Transgenderism. They only changed it when the word transgenderism started being used by people they disagree with.

  4. Yes. A doctor does not “assign” a baby’s sex any more than he or she “assigns” the baby’s weight. Both processes are simply observing and documenting objective facts about the baby. Furthermore, the doctor has no authority to make the baby anything other than what it is. If the doctor, either inadvertently or maliciously, checks “male” when the baby is female, that does not make the girl a boy–which it would, if the doctor actually had power to “assign” the baby’s sex.

  5. In his essay Orwell talked about the need for simplicity and clarity in language – he lists half a dozen points. Never use a long word when there is a short common one available, use clear sentences, that sort of thing. I’m sure he would not have gone beyond the word “sex”, as noted above “biological” is redundant and “assigned” is just wrong.

  6. Ideological capture of many media outlets. Ideological capture of many universities. Ideological capture of many government and funding agencies. Ideological capture of many professional associations. Ideological capture of many nonprofits and international organizations.

    If I can see the above organizations get things so wrong in areas in which I have expertise, if I can see apparently willful omission of pertinent questions and information or intentional distortion of facts, if I notice that this pattern can also hold in areas I lack specific expertise but for which I opt not to outsource all of my thinking, then I wonder how many things I am being told by reporters and “experts” that are also wrong but which I accept at face value because I either lack expertise or lack the time to dig deeper.

    “Trust the experts.” Ideological capture . . .

  7. The recommendation not to use ‘male and female hormones’ is the bold faced lie that burns my toast. It’s beyond disingenuous or dishonest, it’s a damned lie. Why? Because to transition from say female to male, what drugs must she take in sufficient dose to get those blood levels higher than is found in the female sex? Oh, right – testosterone. Oh and anyone taking it will see their performance enhanced (depending on the sport) – a medical fact for why athletes take androgen receptor agonists like testosterone to begin with. It’s a fact because even better than comparing hormone blood levels between individuals, a person who starts taking testosterone becomes their own control, negating virtually every other genetic or environmental factor and proving that ONLY the drug improved their performance. Why is testosterone banned in sports? Because it improves performance and is considered cheating. I so despise those who lie about science.

  8. In regard to comment #9, we need narratives and sociological analyses of how “ideological capture” is carried out. For example: the phrase “sex assigned at birth” is obviously demagogic nonsense, yet it keeps turning up in style guides and elsewhere.
    Who is it who chooses to use this phrase? Does it spread by simple copy-cat behavior, or is it planted stealthily? Why is its widespread use not contested?

    1. “Why is its widespread use not contested?”

      Indeed – and perhaps it was contested, with bad results.

      So power, is one reason that comes to mind – I am loathe to admit. Another is it seems objecting to a word is a nit pick.

    2. “Why is its widespread use not contested?”

      Almost forgot :


      Everyone has to be kind to one another. Which apparently means don’t say anything that will make anyone get a sad face, like asking for justification or evidence.

  9. AP: “Do not use the term transgenderism, which frames transgender identity as an ideology.”

    I think Confucius is credited with calling a thing by its proper name. Somehow, the AP guidance reveals something – especially if the thing in this case is not “transgenderism”, but “gnosticism”. In which case it would be – IMHO – an accurate word. Maybe more so adding Hermeticism but I haven’t read enough about that yet.

    Now – call me a conspiracy theorist if you like – but the reason victims of Marxist theology are laser-focused on a reproductively-relevant feature of biology is the role it is expected to play in “man” making society, and society thus making “man”, as Marx wrote about in the Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts of 1844 (at least – I haven’t read Das Kapital yet).

  10. I read today an article on the Transgender issue which contained the following enlightening paragraph-
    “One of the things I’ve been thinking about is what puberty blockers do to children. This medication is called a “gonadotropin releasing hormone agonist” and it comes in the form of monthly injections or an implant. And because it simulates the activity of this hormone, it shuts down the activity of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is this almond-sized structure in your brain, it’s one of the most primal structures we have, and it controls all the other hormonal structures in your body—your sexual development, your emotions, your fight-or-flight response, everything. But it shouldn’t be described in such cold physiological terms because your hypothalamus is not just a hormone factory. It’s this system that allows you to stand in awe of the beauty of a sunset, or to hear the sounds of orchestral music and to stop whatever you’re doing and want to listen. And I always think that if someone were to ask me, Where is it that you would look for the divine spark in each individual? I would say that it would be somewhere “beneath the inner chamber,” which is the Greek derivation of the term hypothalamus. To shut down that system is to shut down what makes us human.”

  11. As a former long-time daily journalist, I find myself deeply grateful not to be in the field any longer. AP Style was my absolute bible, but I have no recollection of blatant counseling in favor of bias or essentially campaigning for fringe political position.

    The current opposition to the Democratic Party in the U.S. is execrable and treasonous, in my opinion, led by a self-deluded narcissist. But if there were another alternative that had a chance of winning, I would consider going in that direction.

      1. I withdraw “treasonous,” which is, as you note, an overstatement.

        I nominate “anti-constitution” and “insurrectionist” as replacements.

        The GOP is, without question, running with false narratives about the “stolen” 2020 election and will, it seems, nominate a narcissistic autocrat with dictatorial tendencies for president in 2024. I could never in good conscience support such a party.

        That said, the Democratic leadership would be well advised to wake up to the fact that millions upon millions of Democratic voters are not on board with the extreme elements of various “progressive” agendas.

        1. Has the advantage of meaning anything you want it to mean. So an insult, not an actual accusation of substance. Handy to have words like that. Politicians who switch party allegiance are often called traitors, ditto black people not keen on affirmative action, no names named.

          (Accused) violator of the Espionage Act and obstructor of justice are more specific, provable terms. Why not stick with them? Do you think anyone who will vote for someone under indictment on those charges will change their minds and not vote for him just because his enemies call him traitorous?

  12. It is not at all obvious why a style guide should pronounce on whether or not a type of drug therapy is reversible. That is not a matter of style but a matter of disputed fact and as such a legitimate subject for discussion.

    On a different note, it seems to me that the headline to Prosen’s article is deeply unfair to George Orwell. When he wrote ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’ Orwell was not advocating for double-speak and ‘giv[ing] an appearance of solidity to pure wind’ but warning us about them. Prosen’s essay makes clear that he understands this but his headline implies the opposite.

  13. The Associated Press’s guide to totally destroying journalistic credibility. Parody like self-destructive advice to a profession already having massive credibility issues.

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