AP style on hot topics: ‘fake news,’ ‘alt-right’ and more

By Beki Winchel | Posted: September 6, 2017

More and more, today’s communicators must offer statements about political and societal trends and events.

Whether you’re in that position or are writing about a controversial topic, these AP style tips can help ensure you avoid linguistic pitfalls and don’t stoke cultural flames.

Data journalism for PR pros

AP Stylebook released its 2017 edition in May, which includes about 200 new or revised entries, along with an entire chapter on data journalism.

In a press release, AP Stylebook wrote:

Data journalism has become a staple of reporting across beats and platforms, no longer reserved for specialists. Government agencies, businesses and other organizations all communicate in the language of data and statistics. To cover them, journalists must become conversant in that language.

The importance of understanding and interpreting data doesn’t only fall to journalists.

As more and more PR pros seek to write content that stands out amid the cacophony of social media messages and appeals to the journalists they’re pitching, they must conduct research and include facts.

AP Stylebook says fact-checking should be part of your main story, as well:

Though you should vet your sources and ensure that the statistics and quotes you’re using are both correct and properly attributed, you might face a situation in which you’re writing about specific disputed facts or quotes.

When that’s the case, follow this guide:

Also, be forthcoming if you can’t confirm a statement you use in an article:

[FREE GUIDE: 10 ways to improve your writing today.]

The era of ‘fake news’

When writing about “fake news,” don’t use the term as a crutch—nor sprinkle it in your writing when you’re discussing something with which you don’t agree:

Communicators should choose more descriptive terms and phrases, when possible, to elaborate upon the situation:

Attitudes, groups and beliefs

Amid growing backlash over a march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that was organized by white nationalists—and after protests turned violent— several organizations, including Tiki, GoDaddy and the Detroit RedWings spoke out against the demonstration .

Along with bringing into question when executives should speak out regarding politics and controversial matters, PR crises such as these also come with AP style rules.

On Aug. 16, AP Stylebook added “anti-Semitism” to its definition of “alt-right.” Speaking of the change and term, John Daniszewski, the Associated Press’s vice president for standards, wrote in a blog post:

Avoid using the term generically and without definition, because it is not well-known globally and the term may exist primarily as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In AP stories discussing what the movement says about itself, the term “alt-right” (quotation marks, hyphen and lowercase) may be used in quotes or modified as in the self-described “alt-right” or so-called alt-right.

Depending on the specifics of the situation, such beliefs might be termed racist, white supremacist or neo-Nazi; be sure to describe the specifics. Whenever “alt-right” is used in a story, include a definition: an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism , or, more simply, a white nationalist movement.

When writing on extreme groups, be precise and provide evidence to support the characterization. Report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them.

Instead of relying on a term, include specifics when you write about such groups and their beliefs:

The same guidance applies to groups that protest such things as xenophobia.

Daniszewski wrote:

… [A] term has emerged in the news recently – an umbrella description for the far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations and other events. The movement calls itself antifa, a contraction for anti-fascists, and emulates historic anti-fascist actors in Europe going back to the 1930s. Until the term becomes better known, include a definition in close proximity to first use of the word.

Similarly, “alt-left” has recently been coined by some to describe far-left factions. Like “alt-right,” avoid using unless in a quotation and always include a definition.

Gender-related writing tips

In its recent edition, the AP Stylebook added an entry for the singular “they” and provided guidance on how to use it.

It also included greater detail under its “gender” entry:

For communicators who are writing about transgender people, the AP Stylebook gives the following guidance:

Though not gender-related, the AP Stylebook also clarifies the difference between a person’s character and his or her reputation: