The late Mike Elswick, who was sports editor and city editor at The Tribune-Democrat, had a colorful way of describing the influence of The Associated Press – and its style guide – on how newsrooms report and write.
“You can’t spell crap without AP.”
The Associated Press is a nonprofit cooperative, with media companies as members that provide financial support in exchange for news content.
Generations of reporters and copy editors have turned to the AP Stylebook to help them with word choices and subjects encountered during the course of their jobs. Journalism schools drill into their budding professionals the guidelines established by the AP to help assure both accuracy and consistency of language.
Years ago, AP President and CEO Louis Boccardi described the reference manual this way: “Part of the Stylebook mission is to sort out right from wrong. In other cases, its purpose is to prescribe choices that will make it easier for writer and reader to meet. ... Behind it all is a simple belief in accuracy, clarity and consistency.”
So journalists grow up in the business knowing the differences between such similar terms as gantlet and gauntlet, lawyer and attorney, that and which, ensure and insure.
The Stylebook offers guidelines for capitalization of proper names (Band-Aid, Frisbee, Jell-O), and helps with writer stumbling blocks such as singulars and plurals, possessives – even a few never-do-this rules (backward, not backwards).
AP style reminds us that “half-mast” can only happen on a ship. On dry land, it’s “half-staff.”
And, as does the language, AP style evolves over time.
When I was younger, “under way” was correct; now, it’s “underway.”
Naturally, the style “book” is now commonly accessed online.
And every year, a few long-standing rules are jettisoned to make way for new phrases or modern usage – with ideas coming in on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram; through crowd-sourcing and emails from the public; or through an electronic “suggestions box” on the web, according to AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke.
Newsrooms that are AP members are not required to follow the guidelines, but most organizations do – or try to – and also supplement AP standards with their own local “style” rules.
Froke recently served up an online presentation for journalists through the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, tracking changes to “style” in 2019.
Here are some of the shifts this year:
• Health, science, environment
A new section of terms and meanings was added – seemingly motivated, at least in part, by the climate change debate.
A slideshow Froke shared noted that AP does not plan to get opposing views for the sake of “balance” when the scientific evidence supports a single perspective. For example, feel free to report that cigarettes cause cancer – and that burning fossil fuels has impacted the climate, Froke said.
“Do not give a platform to unqualified claims or sources in the guise of balancing a story by including all views,” according to the slideshow.
“This perpetuates denialism.”
• Dual heritage
Hyphens will no longer appear in phrases such as African American and Asian American in AP reports. (So I can tear out page 8 in my old stylebook.)
“There’s a feeling that including the hyphen amounts to what they call being ‘hyphenated Americans’ – something less than American,” Froke said. “Webster’s New College Dictionary removed the hyphen this year.”
• Accents in words
The AP will not be adding accent marks in words from other languages that have become part of the vernacular, at least for its English-language stories. So cafe and resume, not café and resumé.
However, individuals with well-known names get to keep their accents. That would include singer Beyoncé.
• %, not percent
AP stories – as you may have noticed – no longer spell out the word “percent” when accompanied by a number. (Adios, page 192.)
Old-school copy editors – including me – don’t care for this change.
“Some people love it, some people don’t,” Froke said, noting that the AP style team sought ideas at a recent national conference of copy editors, and “people there were basically aghast that we were so far behind the times.”
• Sports gambling
In this emerging topic, reporters are instructed to use “gambling” instead of “gaming” for the recreational activity of betting on teams and outcomes.
AP now will use the term “integrity fee” in reference to the cut of the proceeds from wagers paid to sports leagues such as the NFL.
And AP urges its members to avoid “overused” terms such as “favorite,” “underdog” and “upset” – unless those designations are based on actual odds from a sportsbook.
• More on hyphens
Compound modifiers that will no longer get hyphens will include these: chocolate chip cookies, climate change report, first quarter touchdown, real estate transaction.
But hyphens will remain for instances such as: little-known song, small-business owner, free-thinking philosophy, loose-knit group.
Frock’s presentation offered this: “Use a hyphen if confusion could otherwise result.”
In other words, it’s a gray area and use your own judgment.
AP has removed hyphens in double-e words such as reenact, preempt, preexisting, reenlist – a decision “resulting in outrage on Twitter,” Frock said.
“We had previously said, ‘Use a hyphen in all of these.’ As it turns out, none of the major dictionaries use the hyphen, nobody else does,” she said.
She added: “There are changes in the Stylebook that I don’t like but that I can necessarily argue with, and this is one of them.”
AP also now says no hyphens in words such as passersby, babysitter and bestseller.
• Data as singular
The noun data will now be followed by singular verbs and pronouns in stories for general audiences. So: “The data is sound.” (Bye-bye, page 66.)
For scientific or academic writing, use plural verbs and pronouns, AP says.
“This got a lot of push-back on Twitter from basic grammarians, who say, ‘No. ‘Data’ is always plural.’ ”
Count me among them.
The data rule will be a major adjustment for this old editor.
At least I can still refer to “the media” as plural. Hopefully.
Well, page 156 may be in jeopardy.