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AP Style clarifies its “alt-right” rule, because words mean things

Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

AP Style—the Associated Press’ rulebook that acts as the journalist’s style guide, dictionary, and reference for best practices in writing news—highlighted its rule for using the term “alt-right” in a blog post yesterday in response to the right-wing violence in Charlottesville and the way it was covered in the news. Journalists aren’t the only ones trying to figure out what to call this racist, violent group. Are they the “alt-right”? “Neo-Nazi”? Plain old “Nazi”? “White supremacist”? It’s for reasons like this the AP guide exists. It standardizes the language used in news (and pop culture writing—The A.V. Club follows AP Style), from political identities to whether it’s “donut” or “doughnut.” (It’s “doughnut.”)

So while AP’s rule about using the “alt-right” hasn’t changed from when it was added to the book last year, events in Charlottesville prompted the people behind the stylebook to clarify a few things. John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president for standards, wrote that “the events in Charlottesville are an opportunity to take another look at our terminology around ‘alt-right’ and the way that we describe the various racist, neo-Nazi, white nationalist and white supremacist groups out there.”


The rule is:

In AP stories discussing what the movement says about itself, the term “alt-right” (quotation marks, hyphen and lowercase) may be used in quotes or modified as in the self-described “alt-right” or so-called alt-right. Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well-known and the term may exist primarily as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.


Daniszewski emphasizes that “we have taken the position that the term ‘alt-right’ should be avoided because it is meant as a euphemism to disguise racist aims.”

Daniszewski goes on to break down confusion over the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist”: “Both terms describe groups that favor whites and support discrimination by race. There is however a subtle difference, at least in the views of the groups involved.”

White nationalists say that white people are a distinct nation deserving of protection, and therefore they demand special political, legal and territorial guarantees for whites. White supremacists believe that whites are superior and therefore should dominate other races. Depending on the group and the context, AP writers are free to determine which description most aptly applies to a group or an individual in a particular situation.


Relatedly, Merriam-Webster reports that “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” were among the dictionary’s top online look-ups following the violence in Charlottesville, and both have been trending all year. Merriam-Webster’s post about the terms break down the differences thusly:

Our definitions observe certain differences between these two words; white nationalist is defined as “one of a group of militant whites who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation,” while white supremacist is “a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.” Of the two white supremacist appears to be somewhat older, being in use from the late 19th century. White nationalist began to appear some decades later.


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