What Is a Trust Signal?
Let’s say you are interested in the topic of a book by an author you aren’t familiar with.
“Mistress has been canceled, go figure! Who would’ve thought that mistresses would be canceled?"
So exclaimed outraged Fox News contributor Joe Concha in reaction to the Associated Press's guidance to journalists to no longer use the term "mistress" to describe a woman in a relationship with a married man—principally because there is no male equivalent for the term and it tends to assign blame to the woman in the relationship.
Don't use the term mistress for a woman who is in a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else. Instead, use an alternative like companion, friend or lover on first reference and provide additional details later.— APStylebook (@APStylebook) April 13, 2021
It's not the first time the AP Stylebook has come under fire, mostly from commentators on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Because the AP sets style standards used in newsrooms across the country—impacting thousands of publications and outlets—the battle over AP style decisions has a similar feel to the textbook curriculum battles now taking place in Texas, California and other states.
The difference is that the AP is a private, nonprofit cooperative of more than 15,000 news outlets worldwide that has been around for 175 years. And because of the First Amendment, it's immune from direct political interference—if not indirect pressure.
Black, White and Read All Over
Criticism came last year when the AP Stylebook recommended capitalizing "Black" but not "white." The reason is that "Black" denotes a distinct group with unique experiences based on color, while "white" does not.
AP style will continue to lowercase the term white in racial, ethnic and cultural senses. (1/8)— APStylebook (@APStylebook) July 20, 2020
Fox News responded by stating that it would begin to capitalize "Black," but would similarly capitalize "White" and "Brown."
Conservatives frequently question the AP's choice of language in news coverage. Earlier this week, they questioned the AP's use of "activists" rather than "terrorists" in coverage of Hamas supporters who launched firebombs into southern Israel.
While Fox News still appears to have a relationship with the AP, they have been threatening to walk away from it for years. As far back as 2012, the late Fox News boss Roger Ailes complained about the AP's allegedly biased coverage of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.
He said at the time:
"[The AP] tips left all the time now ... It’s funny — I’m in a negotiation with AP now for about $24 million, which is what News Corp., that I work for, pays them to give us sort of non-neutral news.”
Crossing T's and Dotting I's
Count me among those who never thought it would come to this with the AP Stylebook.
When I was a newspaper journalist, my colleagues and I considered this guidebook to be pretty uncontroversial stuff. Boring, even.
After all, it's main function was to answer questions like whether to abbreviate Texas or spell it out in a story, or whether it's "room 200" or "Room 200" at the corner hotel. (It's the latter in both cases.)
In this way, the AP established a common language that could be used by all of its member outlets—newspapers, TV stations, digital media and everybody else.
Controversy over AP style? Well, The New York Times thought it was important to include honorifics (Mr., Ms., Dr.) in front of last names. The AP disagreed.
That was the kind of debate AP style used to generate.
A 68-Year History of Widening Influence
The AP Stylebook (full name: The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law) is an American English grammar style and usage guide created by American journalists working for or connected with the Associated Press.
The first edition came out in 1953. Since 1985, it has been updated every spring. Over the years, it has sold more than 3 million copies.
Although it is marketed as a guide for reporters, it has become the leading grammar and usage reference for business communications as well. Marketing and PR agencies typically adhere to AP style as their bible for writing customer press releases, blog posts, bylined articles and website content.
By adopting AP standards, business content carries more authority with those who read it. It reads more like news than advertising, so it has more credibility. It also makes it easier for PR content provided to journalists to be included in news coverage. At Idea Grove, in fact, we recommend most branding decisions—including naming conventions—take AP style into account.
But now the AP Stylebook's unifying role—like everything else we have shared as a society when it comes to information sources—has come into question.
AP Style in a Post-Truth World
"Post-truth" means different things to different people. Ultimately it's simply an acknowledgement that there has been a breakdown in shared sources of truth, as well as the concept of objective truth.
Importantly, “post-truth” doesn’t equate to post-trust. It doesn’t mean there is less trust, or less of a need for trust, than in the past. I specifically take issue with those who use Stephen Covey’s term “low-trust world” to describe our current environment. Indeed, I would argue that trust is in many ways immutable. We can’t live our lives without it—at least not in a satisfying way.
Who and what we trust, on the other hand, can vary widely. In what some would call a “low-trust” world, we may trust the government or the mainstream media (such as the AP) less, but our friends, family and favored niche information sources more.
The Fragmentation of Trust
When people say we live in an era when people no longer trust each other, what they really mean is that we live in an era of trust fragmentation, because there are very few institutions the vast majority of Americans trust as part of a shared identity.
In a recent post, I told the story of an energy company CEO who refused an interview with The New York Times because he didn’t trust it to represent his company accurately—or to reach the audience that mattered to him. In his mind, a story in the Times would be unlikely to serve as a useful trust signal for his brand.
Trust fragmentation has been happening in the United States for decades—occurring notably in the traumatic, divisive 1960s. As far back as 1979, President Jimmy Carter famously bemoaned Americans' "growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions.” Over the past 40 years, this trend has only accelerated.
But this fragmentation makes the people and organizations we do trust even more important to our identity and happiness, not less.
The Trust Signal Multiverse
We’re not in a low-trust world, in other words. We’re in a trust multiverse.
“Multiverse” is a hypothetical concept that most of us know about not from a graduate-level physics class, but from reading comic books and watching superhero movies. It’s the idea that there are alternate, parallel or even infinite universes rather than just our own.
To people in our universe, for example, the DC superhero Flash is a guy named Barry Allen wearing a red suit with a lightning bolt on the chest. But to people in a parallel universe, the Flash is Jay Garrick, the fellow with the silver kettle helmet.
And in your trust universe, people might believe what they hear on CNN. But in an alternate trust universe, Fox News might be gospel.
And "mistress" might be an outdated, sexist term— or just the right word to use for a woman having an affair with a married man.
How long can the AP Stylebook walk this tightrope and maintain its standing as the preeminent style and usage guide for journalists and communicators?
Only time will tell.
Scott is founder and CEO of Idea Grove, one of the most forward-looking public relations agencies in the United States. Idea Grove focuses on helping technology companies reach media and buyers, with clients ranging from venture-backed startups to Fortune 100 companies.
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