August 11, 2014

Just two weeks after the Associated Press explained why it referred to the Islamic militant group laying siege to Iraq as “ISIL” rather than “ISIS,” the rebels complicated matters by declaring a new “Islamic caliphate” and changing their name to “the Islamic State.”

The English translation for the group’s former name previously used by the AP was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. News organizations like The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, referred to it as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Now the question for news organizations is whether to go along with the group’s rebranding efforts and potentially grant it undeserved legitimacy, or to keep using an acronym that’s familiar to readers but is arguably out-of-date.

Here’s what Philip B. Corbett, The New York Times standard editor, wrote in a Times Premier post in July:

As overseer of The Times’s style manual, I discussed with editors on the international desk how to handle this new wrinkle. Of course, we want to be accurate and up to date. But we also want to avoid adding to readers’ confusion. We wondered, too, whether “the Islamic State” might convey the impression that we were describing a functioning state, rather than a single militant faction that controls a shifting share of territory.

The AP has decided to stop using the term “ISIL,” which President Obama still prefers. But the news organization expresses similar concerns over giving readers the wrong impression by making liberal use of “the Islamic State.” Here’s the guidance emailed to Poynter by an AP spokesperson:

About a month ago ISIL changed its name, so our approach is to refer to them on first reference simply as “Islamic militants,” “jihadi fighters,” “the leading Islamic militant group fighting in Iraq (Syria), etc.” On second reference, something like “the group, which calls itself the Islamic State,” with “group” helping to make clear that it is not an internationally recognized state.

Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd weighed in over the weekend:

Adding to the confusion, ISIS a.k.a. ISIL engaged in a slick “Mad Men” rebranding in June, announcing that, in tribute to its ambition to establish a caliphate, it was renaming itself “the Islamic State.” So then Agence France-Presse began referring to the militants as “IS” or “the group formerly known as ISIS,” and The Wall Street Journal switched to “IS.” The Times, however, still calls our murderous new enemy “ISIS” while quoting administration officials and military officers using the acronym “ISIL.”

The New York Times and LA Times still use “ISIS,” as do ABC News, CBS News and NBC News. The Guardian cleverly manages to keep the old acronym while referring to the group by its new name on first reference: “Islamic State (Isis).”

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated The Washington Post’s style is to use “ISIS.” While it has been used in some Post content lately, Arielle Retting and Adam Taylor point out on Twitter that the Post’s style is to use “Islamic State.”

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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