Charlotte still needs N.C. — for now

by andybechtel

Creative Commons image of Charlotte, N.C.

Charlotte, N.C., has an impressive skyline. But is the city known well enough nationwide to stand alone in datelines in news stories?

On occasion, I have shown students in my editing classes a collection of news stories that identify Chapel Hill, N.C., as the home of Duke University. The Wall Street Journal and CNNSi.com are among those making this error, which UNC-Chapel Hill students find unfathomable and even offensive. (For the record, Duke is in nearby Durham, and the campus is known for Duke Chapel.)

I thought of that problem this week when I read that journalists and PR people in Charlotte, N.C., are asking the AP Stylebook to recommend that Charlotte stand alone in datelines and stories as big cities like Atlanta, Houston and Miami. They argue that Charlotte has hit the big time, especially with the Democratic National Convention coming to town this summer. The stylebook campaign has its own hashtag on Twitter. I’ve even seen at least one call for UNC-Charlotte to rename itself the University of Charlotte.

The AP Stylebook editors responded on Twitter that it periodically reviews its list of standalone cities but didn’t plan to make a change for Charlotte now. I think that’s the right call. Here’s why:

  • When I was in Los Angeles in 2008, I was surprised at the lack of knowledge there about North Carolina. There some awareness of where UNC was located, and most people knew that college basketball is a big deal here. But there were lots of questions: Where did the Carolina Panthers play? (Charlotte.) Where did the Carolina Hurricanes play? (Raleigh.) And are those places in North Carolina or South Carolina?
  • A friend who lives in Washington, D.C., posted a photo on Facebook from the Charlotte airport with the mildly snarky caption: “Greetings from layover country!” The image was of a sign with this motto: “Charlotte’s got a lot.”
  • Another friend who grew up in South Carolina and now lives in Denver told me that she is often asked which state Charlotte is in.
  • On a recent trip to Miami, I was asked by the hotel concierge where I was from. I told him North Carolina. His response: “I was in Charlotte this year for a few days for a conference. Nice city. What state is that in? Is that North Carolina?”

Indeed, there’s confusion out there, and that includes in the media and in advertising. Charlotte suffers for two reasons: People mix up North Carolina and South Carolina, and they mix up Charlotte and Charleston, S.C. (The existence of Charlottesville, Va., and Charleston, W.Va., doesn’t help matters.)

Charlotte is not alone in that regard. The New York Times and other media labeled Greensboro, N.C., as a S.C. city in coverage of the John Edwards trial. It probably doesn’t help that Greensboro sounds similar to Greenville — and North Carolina and South Carolina each have a Greenville.

This is where a stylebook comes in. A style recommendation should be about clarity for the reader. Does this word choice, abbreviation or spelling improve understanding of the news?

I  think keeping the “N.C.” after Charlotte adds detail and clarity. Helping readers is more important than boosting civic pride.

I suggest that people in Charlotte do the opposite: Rather than rejecting the “N.C.” abbreviation after the city’s name, embrace it. Own it. Make it clear that Charlotte is in North Carolina and that it’s not the place where the Civil War started or where Thomas Jefferson built Monticello.

Use the media hype surrounding the Democratic convention to play up your connections to the state, not play them down. Show the nation who you are and where you are. Afterward, we can revisit this stylebook discussion. What do you say, Charlotte?

UPDATE: In August 2012, the AP turned down Charlotte’s request, saying that “more detailed datelines help readers overseas and elsewhere grasp news locations.”

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