Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Stephen Kenney is a junior double majoring in journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. He works as an editor for The Daily Tar Heel. In his free time, Stephen enjoys reading, long-distance running and spending time with God.
It seemed like such a harmless change. In August 2019, Kiev became Kyiv. The Associated Press had suddenly staked out its position on a decades-long geopolitical battle.
As the top source of guidance for the world’s leading news agencies, The Associated Press Stylebook holds great power over consumers’ outlooks on global issues. After all, audiences look to journalists to make sense of the world around them.
Most news consumers have no idea that Kiev derives from Russian and that Kyiv is Ukrainian. Instead, they read the news and take in information as it is given.
Therein lies the AP Stylebook’s power. News consumers often have little outside understanding of global conflicts and take cues from the press. The news narrative, then, shapes geopolitical opinions.
For instance, the international community has been divided for years on how to classify the mass killings in Armenia during the early 1900s. The Associated Press joins only 30 countries in the world that recognize the event, referring to it as the “1915 Armenian genocide.”
At the end of the day, each country’s classification of the events in Armenia is nearly irrelevant. People come to their own conclusions based on media perspectives. And that media, usually, follows AP style.
Many believe AP rules impose Western mindsets on the rest of the world. Undoubtedly, Russians see the name change for Ukraine’s capital as The Associated Press bowing to American interests. Editorial independence must remain of paramount importance.
Venezuela provides a clear example of The Associated Press crafting its own standards. Juan Guaidó, viewed by Western powers as the country’s rightful president, is cast as “an opposition leader who has declared himself interim president.” AP style instead declares Nicolás Maduro as the country’s leader.
The AP’s decision leads to large-scale societal effects. When readers see references to Maduro as “Venezuela’s president,” they are more likely to view him as a legitimate ruler. Additionally, they will view Guaidó’s claim to power with a more critical eye.
Most of AP style’s readership has little outside knowledge of the crisis in Venezuela. They have no idea how legitimate Maduro or Guaidó’s reign is. Instead, these rationally ignorant consumers follow the AP’s opinions as facts when the truth may be more complicated.
Because of its great power, The Associated Press must be careful when defining geopolitical terms. Impartiality is impossible when two groups hold diametrically opposed opinions. However, clarity and editorial independence can be pursued to carefully address turbulent issues.
Clarity comes first and foremost. Why should AP style refer to a situation this certain way? High-stakes political situations deserve comprehensive and carefully reasoned answers. Wishy-washy statements will not suffice when tensions and emotions run hot.
The Associated Press has failed in this regard. While some situations receive the seriousness they deserve, countless others hold little more than a sentence of rationale. The AP blandly labels the 1915 Armenian genocide as such because it is “usually described” that way. Such emotionally charged issues deserve more transparency than this.
The Associated Press fares more positively on editorial independence. No government’s policies match up perfectly with AP style. It boldly states its opinions on international issues without consulting any national entities.
To maintain respectability, The Associated Press must continue to pursue independent thought on world issues. The AP cannot become beholden to governmental interests, and its best path to maintain relative impartiality is by following its own clear standards.
At a certain point, news agencies must take a stand. The media influences how people view salient global issues and must do so responsibly. Clarity on decisions and maintenance of editorial independence are necessary steps to navigate the global minefield.