Five Updates to the Associated Press Stylebook in 2021

Jun 22, 2021 Madeleine Fawcett

As our society evolves, our language does too. 2020 involved more changes than almost any other year in recent history. We experienced a global pandemic, sheltering in place, and a surge in the national dialogue around racial discrimination and injustice. Every year, the Associated Press releases a new version of the AP style guide, so it's no surprise that the 2021 edition reflects many of these seismic cultural shifts. 

AP style writing has been the standard in the news industry for years, and any good public relations content should read like a piece of good journalism, so we need to stay on top of the latest changes. Here are the five most important updates you should know in 2021.

#1: Capitalizing Black 

The term Black should be capitalized when used in a racial, ethnic, or cultural context. The Associated Press says it made this update because many people who identify as Black share a sense of history, identity and community and have a shared experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.

AP's style is to use a lowercase "w" when writing the term white in a racial sense. The Associated Press writes that is because white people are not discriminated against due to skin color and don't share the same history and culture globally.

#2: Asian American-related REFERENCES

New Asian American-related entries were added to the AP style guide this year, including Pacific Islander, AAPI, Stop AAPI Hate and anti-Asian sentiment. Although the acronym AAPI is widely used within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, the Associated Press says writers should still spell out the entire term, only using the acronym in direct quotes. 

This year’s AP style guide says that writers should avoid using the phrase anti-Asian sentiment because it’s vague and doesn't convey a clear meaning. Instead, use more specific language such as anti-Asian bias, anti-Asian harassment, anti-Asian comments, anti-Asian racism or anti-Asian violence.

Read full AP Style guidelines

#3: Coronavirus terminology

The word coronavirus refers to a family of viruses, but in AP style writing it's okay for writers to use the term to specifically refer to the virus causing the current pandemic. Although this incorrectly implies the present coronavirus is the only one, readers will understand your intended meaning. 

The term COVID-19 refers to the illness caused by the coronavirus and should be used in that context. For example, you could say coronavirus spreads through the air, and my cousin is recovering from COVID-19. Always capitalize all letters in COVID-19. 

Many other pandemic-related terms were added to the AP style guide this year, including superspreader, long-hauler, distance learning and contact tracing.

#4: Vaccine-specific guidelines

Although they sound similar, vaccine and vaccination have slightly different meanings: a vaccine is a product that provides immunity against a specific virus, while vaccination is the act of giving a vaccine. However, the difference between these terms is minor, so people often use the words vaccine and vaccination interchangeably. 

It's acceptable in AP style writing to use both “the COVID-19 vaccine” and “the coronavirus vaccine.” Most of the time, you don't need to specify which manufacturer made the vaccine unless that information is relevant to the story. The Associated Press says writers should not use the term anti-vaxxer to describe a person opposed to vaccines unless using it in a direct quote.

#5: Writing about disabilities

The 2021 AP Stylebook contains updated guidance around writing about disabilities. In general, only mention a disability if it's relevant to the story and either a medical diagnosis has been made, or the person you are writing about uses the term. Whenever possible, it's best to ask people with disabilities how they prefer to be described because different people have different preferences. Some prefer to use person-first language such as "woman who is blind," while others prefer identity-first language such as "blind woman." If you are describing a larger group of people with disabilities or can't confirm an individual's preferences, default to person-first language. 

Avoid the terms handicap and handicapped when referring to a disability or a person. In scenarios unrelated to disabilities, you should also avoid using disability-related words. For example, don't refer to a situation as psychotic, a plan as moronic, or use the expression "she turned a blind eye."

The Associated Press updates the AP style guide continuously throughout the year, so it’s always important to stay on top of the latest changes. Inkhouse’s content team has you covered with our AP Style resource page. Happy writing!

// return to AP style guide updates

Madeleine Fawcett

Madeleine is a senior content specialist at Inkhouse, where she develops strategic, targeted content plans to help clients reach key audiences and tell their stories through writing. Her work includes bylines, blog posts, white papers, website copy, press releases, data reports, and more. Madeleine is originally from the Chicago area. She graduated from Santa Clara University, where she majored in English and Spanish.

Read more from Madeleine Fawcett

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