European editors reject AP decision to use Great Recession


Three years ago, journalists were frantically reporting on a complex credit crisis they would eventually be critiqued for failing to predict.

Dutch reporters reported day and night on the “kreditkrisis.” Spaniards were busy covering the “crisis de crédito.” French speakers were abuzz about “pénurie de crédit.”

Changing vocabularies

Nomenclature for the crisis that burst on to front pages around the world in 2007 has evolved as the scope of the crisis itself developed.

As housing prices fell in the United States, the credit crisis began. Words like “subprime” and “adjustable rate mortgaged” danced across front pages.

As housing prices dropped and pink slips flew, we realized we were in a time of financial crisis. The European Central Bank and US Federal Reserve added billions of euro into the financial markets, prompting the need for many charts, graphs and explanatory stories.

We began talking about a economic crisis. Photos of Britons lined up outside Northern Rock ran across wire services everywhere. World leaders like Gordon Brown, George Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel kept op-ed writers in business with their support – or lack thereof – for national and international bailout schemes.

Employment data and a lack of consumer spending started to indicate we were in a recession, a tricky term economists like to argue about.

Later, it became the global recession.

In February, the Associated Press, a ubiquitous wire service that produces a style guide considered in the United States to be “the journalist’s bible,” went so far as to give the crisis its own title: the Great Recession.

A crisis by any other name

Many European publications and wire services have rejected the term.

“Let the historians, not the sub-editors, categorise major historical turning points,” Lisbeth Kirk, editor-in-chief of the EUObserver, said via e-mail.
Reto Gregori, chief of staff at of Bloomberg News, said journalists at Bloomberg are loath to use capital letters when it comes to characterising the economy.

“Historians and economists will determine whether the recession that started in December 2007 should be called the Great Recession,” Gregori said via e-mail. “At Bloomberg News, we’re sticking to ‘a recession’ at this point.”

Bloomberg News is a 20-year-old initiative of Bloomberg L.P., an American company data and software company well-known for the news terminals it sells to financial firms. It says about 350 newspapers and newsmagazines subscribe to its newswire.

Tim Quinson, executive editor of the Europe, Middle East and Africa bureau at Bloomberg, said Bloomberg may reconsider its position in the future. When doing so, it will take cues from academia.

“We have decided that we won’t change our wording until the National Bureau of Economic Research at Harvard University declares that the recession is over. Then analysts can review the landscape with more of historical perspective,” Quinson said via e-mail.

“Until then, we will call it a recession.”

Ditto at The Economist, the increasingly influential weekly newsmagazine from Westminster. It has gained in circulation in each of the last four years, unlike competitors like Forbes or Business Week.

Tom Standage, the business affairs editor at The Economist, said journalists there do not use the “Great Recession” unless quoting sources who use the term.

In the past, the Economist has tracked the use of the term “recession” in the business press.

“Typically we say “the recession” for the rich world and “the downturn” when talking about developing countries, many of which did not go into technical recession,” Standage said via e-mail.

The term “Global Recession” has been discussed in the newsroom and smaller meetings dedicated to updating the Economist’s in-house style guide, Standage said.
Generally, he said, it is disliked and not likely to find its way into the Economist’s style guide.

“We dislike jargon and other terms of art,” he said.

David Marsh, who edits the style guide at The Guardian, says the term “Great Recession” appeared in print 17 times in the past 12 months.

Guardian reporters included the term mainly when quoting sources and usually qualified it with a date range, “Great Recession of 2007-09.”

“The fact that it needs to be qualified by suggesting when it took place demonstrates, in my view, that it is not yet a widely accepted definition,” Marsh said in an e-mail.

Marsh said it is unlikely the term will be included in The Guardian’s style guide.

Nor will it crop up in style manuals at the Financial Times, executive editor Hugh Carnegy said.

Carnegy said he finds the term “rather portentous” and added that he prefers to let historians name the era.

“Once adopted, there is a danger it would proliferate in an irritating way,” he said in an e-mail. “In fact, thanks to the AP, it already has!”

Crafting constructs

Great Recession is an obvious throwback to Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted until the Second World War.

The term Great Depression was not used during those years, though. The then-president of the United States, Herbert Hoover, did use the phrase “a great depression” in speeches as early as 1930. But the term didn’t become popular right away.

It took until 1934, when a British economist Lionel Robbins published a book called The Great Depression, before a definite article and capital letters were added.

While most historians and stewards of journalistic style – including the Associated Press – readily use the phrase to describe what is widely accepted as the worst economic downturn of the last century, at least one is more cautious.
The Economist does not use the phrase Great Depression, preferring instead “the Depression.” The capital letter helps distinguish from other depressions.

“The lesson of history is that after the Great Depression, people found a new term for depressions (recessions),” Standage, at The Economist, said.

“Might the same happen again now? Will the Great Recession catch on, and subsequent recessions be referred to as downturns?”

Standage added that he hopes not; downturn is a euphemism used in countries suffering a recession.

In a January, 2008, column, the late linguist William Safire posited that the crisis would soon come to be characterized by a phrase starting with “the Great.” His column contemplated possible follow-on nouns like “Fall,” “Reckoning,” “Devaluation,” “Unwind” or, indeed, “Recession”.

Like the editors at The Economist, FT and Guardian, Safire warned against prematurely naming the era.

“…a national or global economy takes longer to sink deeply into recession. That’s why it is premature to settle on a word or phrase for whatever it is we’re going through today. An extended credit crunch or credit crisis? A “recession that would curl your hair,” in the Eisenhower-era phrase? Or just a run-of-the-mill recession, a mere “bump in the road,” the inexorable exhaling during the business cycle?”

Although the AP has taken a stand and assigned a special moniker to the era, it is quite evident that other editors are more cautious about using potentially inflammatory language to describe the crisis.

Flickr images from users alexthepink, Herschell Hershey, mike d’ leo