March 29, 2019

American journalists look to the Associated Press as the arbiter of language. Most newsrooms don’t have the resources to develop their own style manuals, so the influence of AP’s guidance stretches far beyond its own staff.

Friday’s updated entries on race-related issues are an acknowledgment of the topic’s growing prominence in American journalism. This new guidance offers journalists clarity and precision as they frame the news for their audiences.

Two things jumped out at me: AP finally agrees that “hyphenated Americans” are a relic. And, when an incident is racist, journalists should say so.

It’s seemingly small but significant that AP is eliminating the hyphenated American. The entry for dual heritage says to drop the hyphen in such terms as African American and Asian American. The hyphen dates to the 19th century as a way to distinguish immigrants as “other” and has been a common microaggression for more than a century.

More stylebook changes: AP says the percentage sign now OK when used with a numeral (that’s shift+5)

When a subject’s heritage is relevant, it’s important to respect the source’s preference. Someone who is Asian American might be more accurately described as Chinese American. Someone who is black might want to be identified as Haitian Canadian.

Race is central to many recent headlines: Jussie Smollett’s case, immigration, the viral video of a teenager and a Native American elder.

However we are in an era of dog-whistle politics — if you know what to listen for, you get the message. Some newsrooms have soft-pedaled describing actions as racist. Instead, they have hedged with language such as “racially motivated.” Now AP has drawn a bright line in its entry on racism:

The terms racism and racist can be used in broad references or in quotations to describe the hatred of a race, or assertion of the superiority of one race over others.

The entry goes on to say that journalists should start by assessing the facts of the situation and discourages the euphemism “racially charged.”

A key portion of the entry on race-related coverage says:

Identifying people by race and reporting on actions that have to do with race often go beyond simple style questions, challenging journalists to think broadly about racial issues before having to make decisions on specific situations and stories.

AP has long given journalists latitude to use news judgment in determining how pertinent it is to include race in news coverage. But this year’s updates note that race is often “an irrelevant factor” and cautions journalists to be clear about the role of race before they include racial identifiers.

That’s a key component in mindful reporting: As journalists, we determine what is relevant to share with our audience. Everyone has their own innate set of assumptions, and race as a descriptor is one way in which we can add nuance or — perhaps unwittingly — reinforce stereotypes.

The stylebook also has a new entry cautioning against calling someone “a black” or “a white”; this is similar guidance to an entry updated in 2017 advising against referring to someone as “a gay.”

In full disclosure, I was asked to weigh in on AP’s race entries as a representative of the Asian American Journalists Association.

A few resources I recommend for people looking for more in-depth guidance on race issues:

Journalism relies on the power of language. And the precision of that language is more critical than ever when it comes to how we cover race.

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Doris Truong is responsible for overseeing Poynter’s teaching across platforms. Her diversity portfolio includes helping newsrooms better cover their communities and providing the resources to…
Doris Truong

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  • Richard, your premise is flawed because racism applies to ethnicity. Racism, a delusional belief of superiority of one race over another, may result in prejudice or discrimination against a race or ethnicity. Dr. Cornell West says race matters, but race is socially constructed to identity. Modern biology studies genetic diversity, not race, which is an obsolete classification. Your reasoning is also flawed. What articles are you referring to? Do you actually read articles “everyday” calling policies racist or is that exaggerated? Throwing unsubstantiated stats into an argument with a flawed premise could be seen as an appeal to ignorance. Your also trying to equivocate national identities that are particularly different. Finally, I wouldn’t use the term illegal alien to describe people, but it is oxymoronic to refer to people south of the border in such terms. Wouldn’t they have to cross the border first to branded in such a way? In my opinion your argument is not only flawed but also naive.

  • Racism or racist should only apply to discussions of race, not ethnicity. Everyday I read articles about policies against illegal aliens south of the border are racist. Mexico’s majority racial group is Mestizo (Caucasian/Indigenous) 60% and Caucasian 9%. Honduras has a 91% Caucasian/Indigenous population. Nicaragua has a 86% Caucasian/Indigenous population. Other Latin countries are similar. With an overwhelming Caucasian population, why is racism cited as a cause of policy differences?