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:
Basic fact-checking should be part of the main story, including pointing out when an assertion differs with known facts. (1/2) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
Often you also need a separate fact check piece with more reporting to explore disputed points or questions more fully. (2/2) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
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:
Present the assertion, using the exact quote or quotes. Quickly state what’s wrong with it or what is correct. (1/5) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
Follow with the facts, backed by appropriate citations and attribution. (2/5) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
Stick to checking facts, rather than opinion. (3/5) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
Fact checks need not show statements to be clearly correct or clearly incorrect. (4/5) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
Words can be true, false, exaggerated, a stretch, a selective use of data, partly or mostly true, etc. (5/5) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
Also, be forthcoming if you can’t confirm a statement you use in an article:
If a statement can’t be confirmed, or can’t be immediately confirmed, say so. #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
[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:
The term fake news may be used in quotes or as shorthand for deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news. (1/4) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
But don't label as fake news specific or individual news items that are disputed. Describe the dispute specifically. (2/4) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
Communicators should choose more descriptive terms and phrases, when possible, to elaborate upon the situation:
If fake news is used in a quote, push for specifics about what is meant. Then choose precise wording to convey that. (3/4) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
Some alternatives: false reports, erroneous reports, unverified reports, questionable reports, disputed reports. (4/4) #APStyleChat— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 11, 2017
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:
When using -phobia words like xenophobia, be specific about observable actions and avoid descriptions or language that assumes motives. pic.twitter.com/rCdrsCLgdh— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) August 3, 2017
The same guidance applies to groups that protest such things as xenophobia.
… [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:
Gender refers to a person's social identity while sex refers to physical characteristics. Our new gender entry has more detail. pic.twitter.com/6dUISTx8AB— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) August 9, 2017
For communicators who are writing about transgender people, the AP Stylebook gives the following guidance:
The adjective transgender describes people whose biology at birth does not match their gender identity. (1/3)— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 26, 2017
Identify people as transgender only if pertinent. Don't refer to someone as a transgender, or use the term transgendered. (2/3)— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 26, 2017
The shorthand trans is acceptable for transgender on second reference and in headlines. (3/3)— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 26, 2017
Though not gender-related, the AP Stylebook also clarifies the difference between a person’s character and his or her reputation:
Character refers to moral qualities. Reputation refers to the way a person is regarded by others.— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) July 24, 2017