Race-related coverage: a look at the Associated Press Stylebook


Claire Redinger

In the world of journalism, the main guidance for all things word choice and grammar is the Associated Press Stylebook. AP recently changed their policy on the capitalization of Black in the context of race, ethnicity and culture. Graphic by Claire Redinger/The Gateway.

On June 19, 2020, The Associated Press announced that the “b” in  the formerly written “black” should now be capitalized.

“AP’s style is now to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa,” wrote John Daniszewski, AP vice president for standards, in a blog post. “The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”

For those who are not journalists, communication professionals or students of these disciplines, this might not make much sense. Afterall, who is the Associated Press anyway? Why does this matter?

This article will break down the rules of race-related coverage based on existing journalism industry practices. Additionally, it will offer explanation as to why headlines and sentences are written in certain ways.

The Associated Press Stylebook

As an independent student newspaper, The Gateway follows and adheres to professional and established standards of the journalism industry.

In the world of journalism, the main guidance for all things word choice and grammar is The Associated Press Stylebook, or the AP style guide for short. Not all newspapers or journalists adhere to this particular style – the New York Times being a notable exception – but many (perhaps most) do, including The Gateway.

Copy editors, or proofreaders, are generally on the most-intimate basis with this book, editing all articles for consistency and accuracy. However, all journalism students at UNO are expected to use AP properly in classes, and for practiced journalists the rules of good ‘ole AP are probably second nature.

So, in short, the AP style guide is a book (and a Twitter account and a website) that regulates grammar for communication professionals and journalists.

How does it work?

            The AP style guide is kind of structured like a dictionary, with most entries being in alphabetical order. However, there are also sections at the back of the book for longer entries like sports or religion. Words or phrases can be looked up and rules are explained. Users then format their words in conjunction with the rules.

Each year the Associated Press meet and update the rules for the new guide. Then, a new book is published and users learn the updated rules. For example, in 2018 the AP rule required writers to spell out the word percent, but in 2019 the new rule became to use %.

Race-related coverage

            Now that context has been provided about the Associated Press, let’s take a look at a few of the general rules for reporting on race.

As the race-related coverage entry reads: “reporting and writing about issues involving race calls for thoughtful consideration, precise language, and an openness to discussions with others of diverse backgrounds…”

Additionally, the book states, “consider carefully when deciding whether to identify people by race. Often, it is an irrelevant factor…there are, however, occasions when race is pertinent.”

Here are some general rules:

  • Black: capitalized, acceptable as an adjective. African American can also be used for an American Black person of African descent.
  • Indigenous: capitalized, describes “original inhabitants of a place.”
  • Asian American: capitalized and acceptable for an Asian of American descent, but reference to a person’s country of origin should be used if possible.
  • Avoid Caucasian as a synonym for white, unless it’s used in a quote. When used, it’s capitalized.
  • People of color or racial minority: used when referring to multiple groups of people who are not white. If it’s just one group, be specific. Don’t abbreviate as POC.
  • Latino or Latina: capitalized and used as an adjective for those from, or whose ancestors are from, a Spanish-speaking country in Latin America. Hispanic can also be used and should be capitalized. Latinx should only be used in proper titles, quotations or when someone requests it, and if used a short explanation should be offered as to why.
  • American Indians or Native Americans: both capitalized, both acceptable to describe “two or more people of different tribal affiliations.” If you are referring to one person or group, use the proper name of the tribe.
  • Do not use Oriental. Use Asian.
  • Do not use ghetto to describe a region where minorities or poor people live.

Why is this important? A note from the digital editor

I believe a better understanding of how the news is created allows readers to understand why they’re reading what they’re reading. The Gateway aims to be objective in our reporting, and when deeply important, human, subjective issues such as race are covered, readers can quickly – and understandably – be put on edge.

I want our readers to know that we’re practicing what we’re taught, that we’re following rules created to maintain neutrality, and that we aim to be accurate and precise with our words.

My hope is that this explanation will create a better understanding of why a person is described a certain way or why something is capitalized or not. The news, and how and why it is written, matters.

It should not be biased. It should be by the book––the stylebook, that is.