Campaign to eliminate media mentions of ‘Polish death camps’ claims success with AP Stylebook change

This was been a good week for Alex Storozynski, the president and executive director of the Kosciuszko Foundation, and a former journalist with the New York Daily News and the New York Sun, among other publications. (He shared a 1999 Pulitzer as part of the News’ editorial board.)

The Kosciuszko Foundation is dedicated to fostering “educational and cultural exchanges between the United States and Poland,” and in October 2010 it launched a petition to convince news organizations to stop referring to World War II Nazi concentration camps as “Polish death camps” and other variations.

The petition today has over 300,000 signatures. On Monday, one of its goals was realized when the Associated Press announced an update to its Stylebook that specified why the term “polish death camp” is not to be used by reporters and editors.

Similar updates have been made to other style guides, including those of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, according to Storozynski. The website iMediaEthics has been tracking this issue for some time, and noted the updates made by the Times and Journal, in addition to this week’s news.

I previously noted the frequent publication of “polish death camp” corrections in a 2006 post that shared results of a news database search. I turned up roughly 30 corrections, dating back to 1991. (Note that you need to click through an unfortunate but temporary malware warning to read the previous link.) I conducted another Nexis search today and found at least 11 corrections have been issued since my July 2006 post.

The corrections keep coming thanks to efforts by no less than the Polish Foreign Ministry and British Parliamentarians, along with other organizations and private citizens. Storozynski says a letter writing campaign predates his petition by several years. There is also a small Facebook group, a Wikipedia page, and many threads on the issue on PolishForums.com.

Storozynski said he’d recommended a petition years prior to joining the Foundation. He also tried to explain to Polish groups that they needed to lobby for a change to newsroom style guides. Neither were taken up at the time.

“[Prior to joining the Foundation] I was contacted by friends in Polish diplomacy who asked for help in dealing with this issue,” he said in an email to me. “I suggested that they start a petition asking news outlets to change their stylebooks to put pressure on news outlets to stop using this term. But most people who are not journalists don’t really understand the significance of stylebooks and nothing came of my suggestions. Instead, a letter writing campaign to newspapers ensued.”

After Storozynski was hired to lead the Foundation, he pushed forward with the petition, and began contacting news organizations to ask that they update their style guides.

David Minthorn, AP’s deputy standards editor and a co-author of the AP Stylebook, told me he was aware of the Foundation’s campaign, but said his organization’s update is not a direct result of that action.

“We’ve had email exchanges with the Kosciuszko Foundation on their campaign,” he said. “While we listen to anyone with a style suggestion, the decision to include the ‘concentration camp’ entry reiterating longstanding AP guidance was ours alone, not the result of a campaign or request.”

He also provided a statement that was recently prepared in response to queries from iMediaEthics about this issue. It reads in part:

Very occasionally, historical references in news accounts have used too much shorthand, misconstruing the historical record with ambiguities like “Polish death camps” — giving the location precedence over those who committed the crimes on a captive people.  For that reason, the AP Stylebook team decided it was time to underline correct phrasing for references to that era. Hence, this new entry added to the online Stylebook this week and slated for inclusion in the 2012 printed edition. …

To underline: This is not a change of policy. It has always been AP’s guidance to staff to make such distinctions clear. We’ve decided now that there are enough people who may not know the facts that it was worth adding to the AP Stylebook. The Stylebook editors always viewed it as something we might include. The entry is one of several additions made in our annual review of AP Stylebook terms.

Here’s the new entry in the AP style book:

Concentration camps. For World War II camps in countries occupied by Nazi Germany, do not use phrases like Polish death camps that confuse the location and the perpetrators. Use instead, for example, death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Though he sees this week’s news from AP as a step forward, Storozynski said there is still work to be done.

“The Kosciuszko Foundation will continue it’s [sic] campaign against the media’s libelous use of the historically erroneous terms ‘Polish concentration camp’ and ‘Polish death camp’ to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi extermination camps built by the Germans during World War II,” he said. “We will continue the petition until The Washington Post, The New York Post, FOX News, TIME magazine and other news outlets include entries in their stylebooks requiring news stories to be historically accurate.”

For now, though, the petition has been updated to include AP in a list of organizations that made the change.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    Hardly “libelous” but, yes, very sloppy phrasing.

    Those of us of a certain age or with an interest in history understand the shorthand, but using “Nazi-occupied Poland” is more accurate and appropriate for the shrinking number of younger readers we all wish we could attract.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Bottrell/19202822 Kevin Bottrell

    I’ve been getting this organization’s e-mail releases for at least a year, and I’m always torn when I read them.

    On one hand, yes it is much more accurate the way they want it, and we all strive for accuracy.

    On the other it seems like a waste of energy on the part of an organization that could spend their time and undoubtedly their money on solving some more current problem. It’s not unlike the Armenian Genocide where congress made such a big deal over whether to call something a genocide or not 50 years after the fact.

    And on a third hand, given how little many people know about that period in history, especially today’s students, the more accurate information we have out there the better.

    I just don’t know what to think…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Noras-Kos/100000641747211 Noras Kos

    Good job.