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AP Changes Guidelines on Discussing Race

The Associated Press on March 29 announced updated entries in the AP Stylebook on writing about race.

Paula Froke, the stylebook’s lead editor, said that after consultation with members of journalism organizations and affinity groups, hyphens will be dropped in expressions denoting dual heritage, such as “Asian-American” or “African-American.”

Many mainstream news organizations still use the hyphen, but many Asian American, Japanese American and other ethnic organizations dropped the hyphen long ago. Although there has not been universal agreement on this subject among Asian Americans, some have argued that the hyphen suggests that the person is not fully American.

In an article for the Poynter Institute, Doris Truong, past president of the Asian American Journalists Association and consultant for AP’s race entries as a representative of AAJA, wrote, “It’s seemingly small but significant that AP is eliminating the hyphenated 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.”

She added, “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.”

The new guidelines also state, “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.”

“Race is central to many recent headlines: Jussie Smollett’s case, immigration, the viral video of a teenager and a Native American elder,” said Truong. “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 entry goes on to say that journalists should start by assessing the facts of the situation and discourages the euphemism ‘racially charged.’”

Another euphemism to be avoided, AP says, is “racially tinged.”

More broadly, the stylebook 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,” Truong commented. “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 cautions against calling someone “a black” or “a white.” This is similar to a 2017 entry advising against referring to someone as “a gay.”

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