Big picture advice on inclusivity and identity dominated the AP Stylebook changes announced at the ACES national conference today (April 2) in San Antonio.
One of the big focuses in the AP Stylebook editors session was on a new chapter on Inclusive Storytelling, noting that it is essential to accuracy and fairness. The chapter includes advice for both writers and editors, including sections on the language of inclusive storytelling.
“We strongly believe that inclusive storytelling must involve people at every stage and every level of a story, bringing in as many perspectives as possible,” AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke said in an interview before the ACES session. “Even after multiple stages of review, a story or photo that reaches the copy desk may contain an issue that editors attuned to these concerns can flag – thereby improving the piece in a crucial way.”
The new stylebook chapter focuses both on considerations for doing inclusive storytelling and on the language used to tell inclusive stories. Part of the chapter says: “The words – even a single word — that we choose to describe a person or convey a scene shape the thoughts and perceptions of readers and listeners. … Is a person an addict, or a person with a drug dependency? Is the woman elderly, or a 70-year-old marathon runner?”
The chapter explains that the guidance is “grounded on the principle of thoughtful and precise wording” and that that advice on careful selection of language in one entry generally applies to all areas of writing.
For instance, both the Inclusive Storytelling entry and new entries on disabilities discuss the differences between person-first and identity-first language and how a writer or editor should determine which one to use.
“Whenever possible, determine which approach a person prefers,” the guidance says.
Those entries suggest the writer and editor not simply follow a rote use-or-don’t-use list.
The disabilities entry notes, for instance, that “autistic people and deaf people often – but not always – use identity-first language.”
Meanwhile, an addition to entries concerning Native Americans lists terms to avoid that can be disparaging and offensive, while noting that sometimes a word can be appropriate if used in the proper context. An example would be the word powwow, which AP says to avoid, but for instance may be the official name of an event.
The work on the 2022 edition of the AP Stylebook was driven by the news of the past few years, Froke said.
“We have to make hard decisions each year about what to focus on. The news of the past few years has been particularly big and broad, especially on issues related to gender, race, the pandemic, and politics,” she said.
“Just as AP’s news coverage has focused on those topics (among others), the Stylebook team recognized the need for significant guidance.”
For the AP Stylebook editors, that included expansion of work from last year on sections involving coverage related to disabilities, race-related coverage, and entries on Native Americans.
“We believe it’s a critical part of any editor’s job to be up on these highly important and visible topics – as important as it is to know grammar and punctuation,” Froke said.
One announcement at the session was about the expansion of the stylebook’s section on pronouns, particularly singular they.
The stylebook now says: “As much as possible, AP also uses they/them/their as a way of accurately describing and representing a person who uses those pronouns for themself. … They/them/their take plural verbs even when used as a singular pronoun, and the singular reflexive themself is also acceptable when referring to people who use they/them/their.”
Froke said the entry is an expansion of previous guidance.
“Our 2017 guidance opened the door to more use of singular they, but really only cracked the door a bit,” she said in an interview. “Our updated guidance reflects the fact that many more people are using singular they, and we more freely use it too as a way of accurately portraying people.
“At the same time, we recognize that many readers do remain unfamiliar with this construction. We try to strike a balance, as the entry describes.”
The focus on big picture language and inclusivity meant there wasn’t as much discussion of the punctuation or usage items copy editors sometimes talk about at the ACES conference.
But even when focusing on big picture ideas, things can get down to the nitty-gritty in the stylebook, like in this entry on a type of moth:
“Use spongy moth for the invasive pest formerly known as gypsy moth, a change approved by the Entomological Society of America in 2022. Gypsy moth is acceptable in a first reference explaining the new name until it becomes better known: spongy moths, formerly known as gypsy moths.”
Froke explained the entry: “In general, we advise against terms that could be offensive or demeaning and that becomes even more important as people become more alert to such issues. Sometimes terms are hard to avoid when there’s not a good replacement.”
That had been the case for the gypsy moth.
“Then the Entomological Society of America announced that it would stop using the term,” Froke said. “For many months, the only alternative was the scientific name, Lymantria dispar. This was a problem. Then, literally right on our deadline, the society approved spongy moth as the new term.”
And sometimes, that’s how the AP Stylebook gets revised … on deadline.