The language of civil unrest

After civil unrest in recent years, the spotlight has shown on the words that news reporters use to describe what’s happening.Perhaps you’ve seen the memes like this one making the rounds today.


Or this one…

The language used in covering these incidents is as examined as the underpinnings of the incidents themselves.

What do you call what’s happening in Baltimore? It’s not a protest, NPR’s standards boss Mark Memmott declared today. And they’re not “protesters”, he said in a memo to staff.

As in other cases we’ve discussed, it’s wise to avoid labels. In this case, “protesters” is a label that’s too broad. The better approach is to focus on action words and describe what’s been happening.

On a Newscast this morning, Dave Mattingly said that “rioting [in Baltimore] yesterday injured 15 police officers. More than a dozen buildings and nearly 150 vehicles were set on fire.” He noted that the violence followed “the funeral for 25-year-old Freddie Gray.”

Korva Coleman used similar language, saying that Gov. Larry Hogan “has declared a state of emergency in Baltimore, after rioting broke out yesterday. … Some residents started fires and clashed with police.”

Morning Edition introduced a report from Jennifer Ludden with this language:

“Let’s go directly to Baltimore, this morning. That’s where people threw cinder blocks at police and set stores on fire. They did all that after the funeral for a black man who died in police custody. NPR’s Jennifer Ludden is tracking the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray. Jennifer, what’s it like in Baltimore?”

Memmott also warned his staff not to say Freddie Gray “died while in police custody.”

He says Gray died a week after his arrest. In a hospital.