Words have never mattered more than they do in the aftermath of George Floyd's death. Or should that be his killing? His homicide? His murder? And how can journalists best describe what has happened since then: Protest? Rioting? An uprising?
Watch RTDNA leaders Scott Libin and Terence Shepherd for an important, timely discussion on writing ethically and inclusively.
This webinar explores how journalists can be accurate, independent and accountable for the language they use. There may be no easy answers, but asking the right questions is a start. Bring your own examples, ideas and an open mind.
Scott Libin, Senior Fellow, Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota and past RTDNA Chairman
Terence Shepherd, News Director, WLRN-FM and RTDNA Chairman
Download the slides (PDF)
RTDNA Guidelines for Civil Unrest
RTDNA Guidelines for Racial Identification
RTDNA Guidelines for Live Coverage
Diversity Style Guide
As protests continue, the need for contextual journalism grows
Additional guidance from Scott Libin and Terence Shepherd:
Coverage should be as complete, concise and accurate as possible. That means using language that is accessible, clear and precise, rather than esoteric, euphemistic or subjective. Law enforcement and criminal justice officials tend to use jargon. Activist groups often have strong public relations strategies. Many such sources demand that journalists adopt their preferred terminology. Take the extra step and make what’s being communicated as plain as possible so that as many members of your audience understand what is happening. For the sake of transparency, tell your audiences what you DO know and also what you DO NOT know. Generally, the active voice is more informative: “Police used tear gas,” rather than, “Tear gas was used.”
Protest? Rally? March? Demonstration? These could all describe the same event, but each word has its own distinct meaning. Rallies tend to be in favor of a cause, a purpose, a person or even a team. Participants want more of what they’re supporting. Protest implies public opposition to policies, practices and sometimes people. A march is simply organized group movement on foot. Demonstration can apply to any of these; it refers to a public gathering that expresses a political position.
Protesters? Demonstrators? Activists? Advocates? Protesters and demonstrators usually perform these activities in public. Activists and advocates can work from home, from offices, online or almost anywhere. Generally speaking, it is a good practice for journalists to describe the action, rather than the individual.
Riot is a different thing entirely. In some jurisdictions, the term has legal meaning and can be a civil or criminal charge. In all cases, it involves violence -- a term which itself is the subject of current debate. Arson, vandalism, looting and other acts against property do not constitute “peaceful protest,” but should not be conflated with attacks on people. Be as precise as possible.
Peaceful? Lawful? Violent? Violence generally means the use of physical force, traditionally against people, but the word can apply more broadly to mean the use of such force to damage someone or something.
Fight? Assault? A fight is a physical clash or, in its command figurative use, a verbal conflict. Either way, the word implies an exchange of force or angry words. People can also fight things, like racism -- again, in the figurative sense. Assault is another term with legal meaning, so journalists should use it with care and attribution. It involves aggressive behavior of one person toward another. It is usually physical, but verbal assault is a common concept outside of the law.
Looting? Theft? Vandalism? These are actions, all illegal by definition. Journalists can observe potential evidence of these events in the field. It is often an even better option to describe more literally what can be seen, e.g., someone breaking a window or carrying items out of a closed business.
Less lethal? Non-lethal? More terms to be used with care and attribution, usually to law enforcement sources. “Less lethal” is generally more accurate, as even weapons such as the Taser have been associated with deaths. By the way, Taser is a brand name, reportedly based on the acronym for Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle. “Tase” is not a word. (Hammers don’t ham and diapers don’t diap, either.)
“Unarmed Black man”? Ask yourself if factors including race, ethnicity, gender or age play crucial roles in the story. Whether a person is armed can be an integral part of the story. Some argue, however, that phrases like “unarmed Black man” can carry connotations you don’t intend, so use caution.
Black? African-American? Person of color? Minority? See RTDNA Guidelines for Racial Identification, The Diversity Style Guide and AP Stylebook's guidelines for race-related coverage
Tear gas? Pepper spray? Pepper balls? The president recently implied that pepper spray (sometimes shot in the form of “pepper balls”) is not “tear gas.” The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes no such distinction.
Defund? Dismantle? Abolish? Reform? These terms have all arisen in the debate over policing. Those who use them often won’t say just what they mean. It is the job of journalists to keep asking.
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