Newspapers struggle with name accents

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Oct 23 13:01:42 UTC 2006

Newspapers struggle with name accents By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ
Sat Oct 21, 12:17 PM ET

When journalist Aly Colon began his career, he always made the same
request to his editors. Could he please have an accent? Colon, a Puerto
Rican native, writes his name with an accent over the second "o" to
distinguish it from the less than elegant body part. When his editors said
they couldn't or wouldn't add the slash to his byline, Colon began adding
it by hand before the paper went to press. "My father told me that I had a
family name, and that that was a name I was to grow up and honor," said
Colon, "and one of the important elements of honoring that name was
spelling it right."

Most people with an accent in their name don't have the option of knocking
on the door of the local copy editor, nor do they have Colon's passion on
the issue. But with the number of Hispanics in the U.S. rising, up more
than 18 percent since 2000 according to the U.S. Census, and overall
newspaper readership on the decline, many media companies are looking at
ways to respond to the shift in demographics and are rethinking just how
tough it is to add the squiggly lines. Newspapers have long maintained
that technological problems and editorial confusion make it too difficult
to add accents, officially known as diacritical marks. For Colon, now a
faculty member at The Poynter Institute of journalism in St. Petersburg,
Fla., it's a question of accuracy, one of the basic tenets of journalism.

The absence of accents can change the pronunciation and the meaning of a
word. The name Pena, without the tilde over the "n," means shame. The
Spanish word for year without that squiggle becomes anus. Iris Llorente,
21, of Doral, Fla. whose mother emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, said she
doesn't expect to see accents in the English press. "I don't take it too
seriously. I usually think it's funny when I see it wrong," she said. But
Llorente echoed other Hispanic newspaper readers when she added that
seeing the accent marks "would be nice. You always want them to get it

Yolanda Gomez, 30, a financial sales analyst in Los Angeles, also
questioned why the use of accents on some French words such as resume are
accepted but not on Spanish words. "The French do it, why don't we?" she
questioned. Advertisers have been quicker to make the change. Cartier's
newest "La Dona" line of watches, created in honor of Mexican actress
Maria Felix, features the tilde over the "n," distinguishing the product
from the Spanish word for donut.

"When you're persuading people, you want to eliminate any barriers to the
communication," said Carl Kravetz, chairman of the Association of Hispanic
Advertising Agencies. "If you're borrowing the word from another language
anyway, you might as well get it right." In recent years, the New York
Times, Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald and other large newspapers have
begun to add them, as have smaller papers, but they are usually applied
inconsistently and are far more likely to appear in the style section than
the news pages. "If you did choose to use accent marks, your staff would
have to be knowledgeable enough about when to use them," said St.
Petersburg Times executive editor John Schlander, explaining why his paper
does not use them. "Some people are going to be bilingual, but others
aren't. Then there's the wire services, and what are their policies."

Many papers blame The Associated Press for going accentless. The wire
service's 2006 stylebook says accents shouldn't be used "because they
cause garble in many newspaper computers." Yet the issue is far from
closed at the AP, where senior editors are looking at ways to insert
accents in the names of individuals who prefer them. The wire service has
long transmitted accents on its non-English wires. "It's something we look
at all the time," AP Stylebook editor Norman Goldstein said. "The biggest
problem is where do you stop once you start?  Doing it in Spanish would be
more useful, but you can't just have diacritical marks for one language."

The technology issue is changing as more newspapers switch to computer
software that can handle the coding necessary to read the marks
transmitted by AP. Editorial software provider Atex Limited, which serves
50 small and medium papers throughout the U.S. said all its systems can
support accents. Even Colon said he sees the accent over his "o" more
frequently these days. The Los Angeles Times instituted an official policy
a few years back to add the tilde.

"It's a fractional step along the lines of using accent marks," said Clark
P. Stevens, chief of the paper's copy desks. Stevens said the issue is
difficult especially for the international desk, which has the most words
to check and still gets much of its copy through e-mail and other systems
that may change the accent. Also, many Hispanics in Los Angeles have lived
several generations in the U.S. and no longer even use an accent, he said.
But Stevens says he believes the trend is toward more accents. "It goes
back to Journalism 101 and accuracy, and identification of a person is a
primary element of information in a news story," he said.  "We've been
edging down the road to using accents for a long, long time. I think we'll
go more that way."


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