The Media Today

The State Department says ‘Turkey’ is ‘Türkiye’ now. What does the press say?

January 17, 2023
Campaign posters of incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cover the streets in Istanbul's affluent Şişli neighborhood. All photos by Shawn Carrié.

When you hear the word “turkey,” what comes to mind first: the country or the bird? The fear that it might be the bird is one of a number of reasons why the country—well, its government anyway—has pushed in recent years for the international community to start referring to Turkey using the Turkish spelling of “Türkiye” (pronunciation: TUR-kee-yeh), a request made of governments and international institutions and also, explicitly, of the world’s media. On the diplomatic front, the push has had some success. The United Nations officially accepted the “Türkiye” spelling last summer; earlier this month, the US State Department finally followed suit, promising to use the Turkish spelling in “most formal, diplomatic, and bilateral contexts” after the United States Board on Geographic Names—a federal body that I, for one, was delighted to learn exists—approved the change. It will get a workout this week: starting today, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish foreign minister, is visiting the United States with a range of important matters on the table (not least Sweden’s and Finland’s stalled requests to join nato).

On the international media front the “Türkiye” push has been noticeably less successful, at least when it comes to major English-language outlets; none that I was able to find have taken up the Turkish spelling. I contacted a smattering of major US-based news organizations to find out whether they might adopt it. I didn’t get much clarity in response (the American media, regrettably, does not have a shared Board of Geographic Names), but it doesn’t look like “Türkiye” will be in vogue anytime soon. The Associated Press—whose Stylebook, a linguistic bible for many US newsrooms, was, as of last summer, “watching to see how much acceptance” the Turkish spelling gained—is still considering whether to adopt “Türkiye,” John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president and editor at large for standards, told me. Reuters and BuzzFeed News (where I worked on the copy desk as an intern in 2017) are also reviewing the matter. The Washington Post and CNN were more definitive—both said that they are sticking with “Turkey”—though CNN didn’t rule out a future change. (The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and NPR didn’t get back to me.)

ICYMI: Both-sidesing the climate story

Deciding whether to scrap “Turkey” for “Türkiye” may sound pedantic, but it could, at least in theory, be fraught for news organizations. The “Türkiye” push has been driven by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the increasingly authoritarian (not least toward the media) Turkish president, who—entering a year that will see both a crucial presidential election and the centenary of the founding of the Turkish republic—seems to see “Türkiye” as a symbolic way to project his nationalist politics beyond Turkish borders. Critics see it as a convenient distraction from the struggling Turkish economy. Equally, Erdoğan is far from the first Turkish leader to oppose the English “Turkey” spelling, and there are legitimate reasons for doing so. In an email, Erdağ Göknar, an associate professor of Turkish and Middle East Studies at Duke University, described the “Turkey” spelling as a holdover from an old colonial order; in the nineteenth century, Western cartoons caricatured the late Ottoman Empire as a turkey in a fez. “The media needs to consider whether the term ‘Turkey’ has been used pejoratively in the past and has a denigrating legacy or associations,” Göknar said. “The historical record shows that it does.”

It’s not new, of course, for a country to want the world and its media to call it something different. Often, the US press has followed suit. “Burma” is now commonly referred to as “Myanmar” even though the name change was highly controversial when the country’s military junta effected it in 1989. (The US State Department still says “Burma.”) More recently, “North Macedonia” and “Eswatini” (or “eSwatini,” as it’s sometimes styled) both quickly gained widespread acceptance in US media, though the latter is often still followed by the clause “the country formerly known as Swaziland.” Nor is it only country names that change. In 2019, the Times switched its spelling of Ukraine’s capital city from “Kiev,” a transliteration from Russian, to “Kyiv,” a transliteration from Ukrainian (though the paper retained the former spelling for the dish Chicken Kiev). Russia’s invasion last year considerably raised the stakes of the letter swap.

While less geopolitically consequential, the case of “Türkiye” is perhaps more similar to that of “Kyiv” than that of another country; “Turkey” and “Türkiye” look very similar written down, and the latter spelling is already in use within Turkey itself. In theory, you might think that this would lower the bar for news organizations to make the change to “Türkiye.” But you might be wrong. Justifying their decision not to adopt the Turkish spelling, a spokesperson for the Post said that “‘Türkiye’ and ‘Turkey,’ though in different languages, are synonymous and the Post’s style guide dictates the use of countries’ names in English”; a spokesperson for CNN, meanwhile, said that the network “strives to weigh requests for name changes with how well the original names are understood by our audience,” and that it is comfortable “for now” that the English spelling “best serves our audience.” A Reuters spokesperson and Daniszewski, of the AP, both stressed the importance of “clarity” for their audiences as they weigh any change.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Clarity and fealty to existing style guides are not the only factors that news outlets told me they consider when mulling changes of this nature; Dru Moorhouse, the copy chief at BuzzFeed News, for instance, said that her desk takes “self-identification and the origin of the name (e.g., colonialism)” into account. Still, among the US outlets I canvassed, I heard very little back on the specific politics of the “Türkiye” push. I also checked in last week with CJR’s own Mike Laws, who told me that “it gets really tricky” when copy desks “make value judgments based on how much we like the politics of a given regime.” He said that he doesn’t think switching to “Türkiye” would be confusing for news consumers—“I think we need to give readers more credit than that,” he said—though he added that copy editors often like to scout around to see whether a given change has caught on before recommending it themselves. I suggested that this sounded ironic given that the news media is itself a key arbiter of whether a new word or name catches on. “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg type situation,” he acknowledged.

I figured, in the course of reporting this newsletter, that I’d come to a view of my own on whether we should follow the “Türkiye” push, but if anything, I feel more confused and conflicted now than when I started. Political value judgments are tricky, but language is political, unavoidably so, and I still can’t quite shake the sense that acceding to a PR campaign from Erdoğan—in an election year, no less—risks playing to the whims of a tyrant who is, among other things, one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists. Still, the question is deeper than Erdoğan—and, as Göknar told me, “keeping the name ‘Turkey’ wouldn’t do much to save liberal democracy in the country either.” And all proposed geographic name changes are politically unpalatable to someone. Deciding whether to go along may never be easy, but it strikes me as easier for an entity like the State Department—which deals in the gray zone of diplomatic expediency and political self-interest—than for the press. All this to say: I guess I’ll keep writing “Turkey” for now—at least until Mike Laws tells me otherwise.

Turkish officials will, of course, continue to litigate the case for “Türkiye” in their overseas dealings; indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear Çavuşoğlu, the foreign minister, do so with the DC press corps this week. At a press conference last summer, a reporter asked Çavuşoğlu, in English, when “Turkey” might stop blocking Sweden and Finland from joining nato. “You mean Türkiye, right?” Çavuşoğlu replied. “Yes, of course,” the journalist said.

Other notable stories:

  • NPR’s Juana Summers spoke with Céline Gounder, an epidemiologist and prominent media commentator on public health, about Gounder’s decision to speak out in the press after the death of her husband—the leading US soccer journalist Grant Wahl, who suffered an aortic aneurysm while covering the World Cup in Qatar last month—was weaponized by anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. One person “blamed me for having killed my husband because he got covid vaccinations, and said this was karma, that I was being punished,” Gounder said. “I’ve been getting rape threats, death threats for years now because of my work, and honestly, I had learned to shrug those off. But this was just… it hurt a lot. Grant did not deserve that. My family does not deserve that.”
  • The Intercept’s Sam Biddle spoke with Marcel Lehel Lazăr, a Romanian former hacker who, under the name “Guccifer,” exposed Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, and who is now back in his home country following his release from a US prison in 2021. (His name was later borrowed by Russian hackers operating under the identity “Guccifer 2.0.”) Though his hacks of US figures “arguably changed the course of the nation’s recent history, Lazăr himself remains an obscure figure,” Biddle writes. This is ironic since Lazăr “often seemed motivated as much by an appetite for global media fame than any ideology or principle. He acted as an agent of chaos, not a whistleblower.”
  • New York’s Andrew Rice assessed whether Project Veritas’s obtainment of a stolen diary belonging to Ashley Biden, Joe’s daughter, could bring the right-wing sting group down. “Much meaningful journalism arises out of information that is stolen, hacked, or illegally leaked,” Rice writes. James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, “contends that he is just as much a journalist as the reporters who broke those stories. And as agonizing as it may be for self-respecting journalists to admit, he may be right, at least from a legal perspective.” (ICYMI, CJR’s Caleb Pershan wrote about Veritas and the diary last year.)
  • Manori Ravindran reports, for Variety, that Amazon’s Prime Video service is “likely to part ways” with Jeremy Clarkson, the star of The Grand Tour and Clarkson’s Farm, after he wrote for The Sun, a British tabloid, that he “dreamed of the day” when people would throw “excrement” at Meghan Markle. (Amazon and Clarkson will proceed with projects that are already in the works.) Clarkson has apologized for the column, which he said he wrote “in a hurry”—an excuse that did not wash with Markle and Prince Harry.
  • And Kashmir Hill reports, for the Times, on an unusual fight between the company that operates Madison Square Garden, in New York City, and lawyers at firms engaged in litigation against the company. MSG has banned the lawyers from attending events at the venue and used facial-recognition technology to enforce its edict. The lawyers have fought back by citing a 1941 law drafted to protect theater critics from petty retaliation.

ICYMI: Is Twitter dying? And what would that mean for journalism?

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.