The AP Dumps Its Standards

Call me “old school” but the craft of journalism and the inhabitants of that professional world must abide by high standards. That’s why this Twitter post by the Associated Press set off a tempest.

At first glance, it seems harmless. But my journalism practice is rooted in the University of Florida’s College of Journalism, known then as the second best program in the country (Northwestern claimed the #1 spot), where the AP Stylebook ruled.

For the unfamiliar, the Stylebook governs everything from proper use of courtesy titles and abbreviations to article structure and use of sources. It is akin to the APA style guide thrust upon first term college comp students or the MLA standard for grad students. The AP Style is the touchstone of print journalists. Its correct use is implied in the profession. When elements are discarded or ignored or flawed, it is a call to arms. That is why this single tweet is not simply annoying, it is distressing.

It reveals first that the AP tweet is issuing a correction (“clarifies” is the telltale sign). Yet even in its correction, the AP is remiss to call it such. Rather, it hides its original mistake under the vague “clarifies” descriptor.

Sure, I understand the “Go with what you’ve got” mandate, especially keen in the digital world of millisecond news bursts. However, there is no replacement for accuracy and a keen editor’s eye. Neither shows here, and while this is labelled “Big Story,” it is hardly at the the level of immediacy to excuse numerical errors. In fact, the correction is caused by nothing less than sloth and greed: a lazy approach to fact-finding in a rush to gain viewers. It is inexcusable.

Next are the glaring – to me at least – errors with the use of numbers. These stylistic directions are set by the Associated Press and cemented in the brain of anyone working in the profession as a trained journalist. I don’t need to refer to the Stylebook, such is my retention of these basics. But for the sake of proving my point re: accuracy, here are the standards.

Never begin a sentence with a figure, except for sentences that begin with a year.

For ordinal numbers, spell out first through ninth and use figures for 10th and above.

– Thanks to Purdue OWL for the accessible AP Stylebook resource.

The person cranking out these tweets for the AP should be spanked with a pack of red pencils. I count one, two, three mistakes in numerical style.

Is it okay to throw out the Stylebook in pursuit of that 140 character tweet? No. Think precedent; the ease with which subsequent errors will arise, the gradual swelling of significant mistakes until the AP is spitting out tweets that rival a fourth-grader.

There is one more troublesome aspect to this tweet. It is a subjective one. And that is exactly why I call it out. The AP had a number of photos available for this tweet (see the full story and other images here). For example, it might have captured the image of motorcyclists in the wind or shown a wood structure disintegrating like toothpicks off a tall building.

The Associated Press might have used any one of these photos with its tweet. All are at the web page carrying the article.




Instead, the AP tweeter chose this image.


Do you notice a difference in your impression? Are you sensing sympathy for this woman? Does the haggard face, hair akimbo, the opened mouth, her slightly pudgy arms and the burger grasped in hand evoke empathy?

Or are you thinking: “Geez, typhoon force winds and she’s holding on to that burger for dear life!” And then, depending on who you are, your mind may crawl into some dark place to elaborate on your disdain.

Matching an image with a story has significant impact on viewers. It is not a haphazard act. It is an intentional, deliberate choice. Think of the disparaging photos of Hillary Clinton attached to pro-Trump tweets as an example. In using this image rather than the others, the AP has signaled a number of messages to its viewers, albeit subtly. None qualifies as impartial.

The AP Stylebook not only sets the structural guidelines for journalists, it claims an ethical standard, one that distinctly calls for fairness and just as explicitly demands content void of stereotypes.

The image chosen for this tweet is questionable at the least. However, we exist in an environment of alt-right hate and white supremacy, especially rampant on social media. The AP – the arbiter of ethics in journalism – has indulged in a despicable act of subliminal stereotyping. If I feel it, then it is likely many more of that agency’s 8.6 million followers felt it.

I am not talking about political correctness, a term damned by the racists among us. I am talking about the ethical violation perpetuated by the most recognized news organization on the planet.

I cannot let this go unchallenged. The Associated Press must enforce its own standards. Old school ethics in journalism do not lose value with time.

I call on the Associated Press to correct its course, comply with its own principles and take its place again as the standard bearer of the Fourth Estate.

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