Book Review: AP Stylebook & Briefing on Media Law

For years, the Associated Press wire service, or AP, has published its style manual, allowing journalists and writers from outside the organization to copy the AP’s style. The operative question is why would someone want to.

Unless you are an employee of the AP or writing for an organization that has adopted the AP style as its house style, this book is an uncertain guide. It is designed for daily, newspaper reporting, not for other types of writing. Its rules and conventions are arcane and Byzantine. For example, should one use periods when abbreviating the names of organizations? According to the stylebook, the answer is no, except when you should. AP uses periods with U.S. and U.N., but not with FBI, CIA, or AP.

Now style is, for the most part, a fairly arbitrary thing and consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but consistency in writing style goes a long way. Some of the AP’s exceptions make good sense. There are sound reasons for not abbreviating the names of Alaska (Alas.?) or Utah, but what is wrong with Tex.? Why would someone choose to emulate the peculiarities of the AP style, especially when one is not engaged in newspaper journalism?

In some areas, the AP Stylebook falls down completely. The book offers nine paragraphs on transliteration of Arabic names. One would think that the AP would have sound advice to offer on this subject. But those nine paragraphs do not promulgate even a single standard. Their advice boils down to personal preference or established usage (without giving examples of what those established usages are).

It should be noted that this is not a grammar manual. It does include entries on some common grammatical errors, such as confusing lie and lay, but the book is primarily concerned with style, not grammar. It does have a section on punctuation that is worthwhile. But here inconsistency again reigns. The forward to the section lauds Strunk and White’s Elements of Style as “a bible” for writers, and then proceeds to violate the rules of punctuation that Strunk and White laid out many years ago. There is nothing wrong with AP’s punctuation style, but if it does not conform to Strunk and White it should not point out that book as a reference.

But not all is lost with the book. If one ignores its style advice, it is a rather handy reference book focusing on current events. The stylebook contains over 5,000 entries, many of which contain useful background facts on a wide range of subjects. If you need a quick overview of the structure and tenets of the Presbyterian Church, it is here. If you want to know about U.S. military titles and ranks, you can find it in this volume.

There are also some good hints on writing objectively and avoiding politically biased terms. The book, for example, recommends anti-abortion and abortion rights as opposed to pro-life and pro-choice.

The AP Stylebook contains several sub-sections. There is one on Internet guidelines that consists of a short glossary and three pages of search tips. The glossary is useful, but the search tips are far to simple to be of help to professional reporters and researchers. One would hope that any AP reporter is more skilled and would find the tips woefully simplistic. The sports and business sections provide useful glossaries and tips on reporting on these specialized subjects.

The most substantial of the subsections is the briefing on media law. This section is very useful for any professional writer. It is an excellent overview of U.S. law regarding libel, copyright, and First Amendment protections. Every professional writer in the United States should have a general understanding of the law in these regards, and the briefing here is an excellent one. It is no substitute for expert legal advice, but knowledge like this is essential in determining when one needs to consult a lawyer.

So in summary, if one is writing for an organization that uses the AP style, then this book is indispensable. If not (which is most of us), then it can be a handy general reference work. It wouldn’t be our first choice of books to fill a reference shelf, but if you have a collection of writing references, then this isn’t a bad buy.

Paperback; 420 pages; Perseus Publishing; ISBN: 0738207403; July 2, 2002.

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