Office of Inclusive Excellence

Is it time to red pen AP style?

October 28, 2021

By Sam Robinson, Associate Professor of Humanities and Communication, School of Humanities and Communications, Chair

As we think about decolonizing the curriculum, journalism instructors are faced with the challenge of deciding if and how best to teach students Associated Press (AP) Style.

AP started in 1846 when a group of New York City newspapers banded together to bring news of the Mexican War into the U.S. faster. The AP has grown to a global news wire service with 248 news bureaus in 99 countries. To have uniformity in writing and consistency in formatting their reports, it created The Associated Press Rules Regulations and General Orders in the early 20th century. This later became the Associated Press Stylebook, a.k.a. the journalism Bible, first published in the 1950s and updated annually since then.

The AP Stylebook provides guidelines to writers on how to format their work. It is used in most news media, and public relations writing. It provides a style for everything from how to format addresses in news articles to how to reference sources. It also ingrains the need to have short paragraphs, avoid contractions and a repugnance for the Oxford comma.

Mainly, it requires content producers to adhere to a style that is based on American-English standards and guidelines developed by an elite group of media leaders.

Although the style guide created a uniform system for providing and consuming information, there are also downsides to this approach. Unique style and voice can easily be lost. Granted, individual outlets can have their own style. But this often means their work will not be spread or “picked up” because it doesn’t conform to the AP standard.

Some would argue the reason for AP style is to provide a common format so news from anywhere can enter the mainstream news cycle. This is only true if the originator is willing to conform to AP style and then we often lose the authentic language and lived experience of the communities the stories represent.

For journalism educators, AP style lessons and quizzes are a core part of most Intro to Reporting courses. However, as a journalism teacher, I want students to find their voice and to help amplify the voices of others; especially those who have not historically been heard. This usually requires approaching sources and communicating what they have shared in their vernacular.

The AP style can become a limitation for inclusive reporting. Its rules would have us either not use direct quotes from these sources or call out language that doesn’t conform to the standard by inserting [sic] next to what the AP perceives as incorrect. The use of [sic] in newswriting reinforces the marginalization of language that is not considered “proper” English. This is especially problematic as we work to move toward solutions-based journalism.

Some institutions may teach AP style while also allowing students to find their voice and use a different style. However, to suggest not teaching AP style or some modified version of it would instantly provoke ire from many journalism instructors and journalism education associations. Rather than teaching AP style as the gospel, journalism teachers should ask students to critically evaluate this and other global styles. Students can weigh the benefits and limitations.

AP and other style guides are changing, but slowly. For example, AP has recently started to accept “they” as a singular pronoun. This is after considerable public discourse and pressure to do so. These updates usually follow behind social movements rather than create them.

We want to prepare our students to be successful journalists, which often entails getting a job in the industry. If they don’t know AP style, getting a job will be very difficult. But, we should ask ourselves how we are propagating structural English language supremacy by enforcing it so strictly.

**No AP Stylebooks were harmed in the writing of this article.