Future Tense

The New AP Stylebook Gets Technical. Really Technical.

The cover of the Associated Press' new Stylebook
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by AP.

On Wednesday, the Associated Press released the 55th edition of its official Stylebook, complete with a new chapter on digital security practices for journalists. It also comes with a slew of new entries on technology that reinforce the importance of online advertising and cybersecurity in everyday life—and journalism.

For most journalists, the advice in the AP guide on how to secure their communications—through strong passwords, multifactor authentication, and the use of virtual private networks and encrypted messaging apps—will probably not come as a surprise. Still, for those tools to have made their way into the Associated Press Stylebook seems like a landmark of some kind for measuring how mainstream digital security concerns have become for journalists.

The new and revised technology-related entries in the Stylebook also reflect some interesting shifts in what the Associated Press believes journalists can expect general audiences to know. In general, many of the recommendations tend to urge journalists in the direction of greater specificity about the technologies they are describing and away from more generic, dated terms. For instance, the Stylebook endorses the terms digital wallets and mobile wallets, but it recommends avoiding e-wallet. In a similar vein, journalists are advised to use the prefix cyber- and the terms cyberspace and cyber sparingly, and instead substitute words like internet or digital. It doesn’t explicitly differentiate between use of cyber as a noun versus use as a prefix, though it does advise against using a hyphen when treating it as a prefix.

The most specific technical terminology in the Stylebook is provided in the entry on digital advertising. This entry includes not just definitions of search advertising (i.e., ads that appear next to search results), display advertising (ads displayed on websites or in apps), video advertising, and affiliate advertising, but also descriptions of retargeting internet users based on previous online behavior and microtargeting ads based on highly specific demographic information.

One paragraph in the entry even calls out Google and Facebook in particular for providing services that allow companies to “share a list of its existing customers, based on unique identifiers such as email address, and have the service find other customers with similar demographics, behavior and other attributes. Facebook calls this lookalike audience. Google calls it similar audience.” That these practices are sufficiently widely discussed in journalism today to merit discussion in the AP Stylebook seems to be a clear reflection of how much incredible reporting has been done in the past few years on digital advertising and its role in everything from political campaigns to discriminatory housing practices.

It’s a testament to that reporting that terms like microtargeting and lookalike audience are now sufficiently familiar to warrant their own entries in the Stylebook, as is the level of detail of the corresponding entries on how online ads are priced and sold. The Stylebook explains the differences between pay-per-click advertising, in which advertisers pay based on how many people click on their ads, and pay-per-impression advertising, in which advertisers pay solely based on how many times their ads are shown to people. It also defines the click-through rate of those ads, or the number of people who click on an ad for a given number of impressions. It even describes the real-time bidding, or auction, process by which many online ads are placed. Advertisers set a price they are willing to pay, and online ad networks then decide which ads to display based on which advertisers will bid the most for a particular ad slot linked to a given keyword or attribute of the person viewing the ad.

Billions of dollars’ worth of online ads are selected via real-time bidding every year, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that online ad auctions have made the cut for the AP Stylebook. Yet for a practice so prevalent, it’s still relatively rarely discussed or understood outside the tech world. None of these online advertising pricing or targeting practices are new or secret, but neither are they so mainstream that I would be likely to use them in a classroom or an article without defining them. I can imagine that not so many years ago they might have been regarded as too technical or niche to be used in journalism directed at a general population, but seeing them listed in the Stylebook—alongside entries for smartphones and facial recognition and digital assistants—makes me hopeful that even more journalists may end up writing about the online advertising industry in nuanced, sophisticated, and precise ways.

Some of the other entries offer words of caution to journalists that I found harder to parse. For instance, the discussion of smart devices advises against referring to internet-connected devices as being part of the Internet of Things “in stories for general readers.” I, for one, would have guessed that a larger population of general readers would recognize that phrase than would, for instance, know what real-time bidding is. On the other hand, if the Stylebook’s goal is to promote specificity and technical precision, there’s no doubt that the Internet of Things descriptor can leave something to be desired.

Another mystery to me was the entry on Big Tech, which the Stylebook defines as including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon, but adds, somewhat confusingly, that the term “should not be understood to specifically exclude other large U.S. tech companies.” Bizarrely, the AP seems to feel that Big Tech is limited to U.S.-based companies, cautioning that journalists should avoid using it “if the deliberate ambiguity of the term risks confusion, particularly where Chinese technology giants are concerned.” Why shouldn’t the likes of Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu be considered Big Tech?

But these are small quibbles about what is otherwise a fairly tech-savvy and thoughtful discussion of terms touching on a range of issues from the online advertising ecosystem and online privacy to digital security and surveillance. It’s a reflection of the impressive journalism that’s been done in these areas and also, with luck, a sign of how much more is still to come.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.