Nearly everyone who watched the January 6th Capitol riot unfold, along with the aftermath of the ongoing FBI investigations, probably noticed a shift in the way the majority of the mainstream press talked about these events. Virtually all of the major newspapers and cable news networks had leaped to use the word “riot” to describe the attack on the Capitol building. It didn’t take long after that for an escalation in the war of words. We quickly heard plenty of talking heads, reporters and op-ed columnists struggling to outdo each other, with words and phrases such as assault, siege, domestic terrorism and even “insurrection” tossed into the mix. Some people, particularly on the right, were quick to point out that members of the press seemed to have suddenly found their tongues after nearly a year of talking about “peaceful protests” in other cities that were clearly on fire after Antifa and BLM “rallies.”
Yesterday, the Associated Press decided to step into these muddied waters and clarify things for everyone. It’s an article that feels as if it could have started with a riddle. When is a riot not a riot? They begin by noting that the use of the term “riot” was nearly (though not entirely) universal, though they manage to demonstrate a bit of restraint when it comes to some of the more incendiary terms. But in a nod to the fact that so many news outlets had previously failed to use the word “riot” to describe the Antifa/BLM riots, the AP offers a bit of an explanation. See if you can guess how that line was drawn. (Emphasis added)
The use of “riot” as a descriptor is almost universally accepted, even though the word has become fraught with racial connotations and despite the relatively gradual way the story unfolded.
Uh oh. Here we go. Reporters apparently need to be careful when using the word riot if there’s any chance that non-White people might be involved. The AP “explainer” doesn’t stop there.
The Associated Press told staff members that protest was too mild a word. Phrases like “mob,” “riot” and “insurrection” were appropriate, noted John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards.
“Don’t call them protesters,” CBS’ Gayle King said during coverage the next morning.
The near unanimity came despite riot sometimes being a loaded term, and a subject of debate for how it was applied last summer to unrest following George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter protests. Some feel it is too quickly applied to situations involving Black Americans.
This is one of those cases where a news outlet bothers to address accusations of bias and unequal coverage but essentially ends up proving the point of their accusers. The AP came out and flatly stated that the word “riot” has been “too quickly applied to situations involving Black Americans.” It would be nice if someone who is in charge of the Associated Press style guide could take a moment out of their busy schedule and let us know precisely when the word “riot” took on “racial connotations” and became a “loaded term.”
Showing a complete lack of self-awareness, the AP article freely quotes Merriam-Webster when seeking to nail down some of the more controversial words and phrases. Since that’s the standard they set, I decided to reel in the conversation and return to the first word that entered the discussion. What does that iconic dictionary company have to say about the word riot?
1a : a violent public disorder specifically : a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent.
b : public violence, tumult, or disorder.
2 : a random or disorderly profusion; the woods were a riot of color.
You know, maybe it’s just me, but I’ve read that several times now and I don’t see a single reference to the race of the “three or more persons” jointly acting with a common intent to create a violent, public disorder. For that matter, there’s no reference to gender, religion. sexual orientation or anything else of the sort. Just “persons.” So if the Associated Press is demonstrably happy to cite Merriam-Webster as an authority in this matter, when did the word riot take on any racial overtones? Feel free to insert some sort of “gotcha” meme here.
I write for a living so I completely agree with the AP’s argument that “words matter.” It’s true. I don’t always reach the gold standard myself on that count, but I do my best. For my part, as regular readers already know, I was calling the January 6th incident a riot from the moment the first window was broken. I’m also fine with the use of “attack” or “assault” on the Capitol building. “Insurrection” is a bit too much of a leap for me because of the inherent implications, but if others want to use it, I’m not going to throw stones. “Domestic terrorism?” Sure. That works too.
But since the Associated Press doesn’t have the stomach for it, I will close by pointing out what should be painfully obvious by now. What should the press call it when a mob in Portland or Seattle or New York or Philadelphia suddenly breaks off from a demonstration and begins throwing Molotov cocktails at police cruisers, burning down precinct stations and federal courthouses, physically assaulting law enforcement officers, breaking windows, and looting businesses? It certainly sounds like a “violent public disorder” by “three or more people,” doesn’t it? So it’s a riot.
When you include a concerted effort to “abolish” our system of courts and law enforcement by destroying the buildings they occupy, one might even go so far as to call it an “insurrection,” at least based on the rules the AP is setting forth. Those were, at a minimum, riots, if not incidents of insurrection in all of those cities. And an honest press would admit that truth without any interest in the color of the various participants’ skin. So use the terms you’ve already defined and approved. They’re just words, right? So use them. Because words matter.