Guidance On The Words 'Protests' And 'Protesters' : Memmos Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott writes occasional notes about the issues journalists encounter and the way NPR handles them. They often expand on topics covered in the Ethics Handbook.
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Guidance On The Words 'Protests' And 'Protesters'

Please avoid referring to the people in Baltimore who have injured police officers, started fires, looted stores and vandalized properties as simply "protesters."

Reports from Baltimore indicate that some people are taking advantage of the situation to lash out at authorities or to grab what they can from businesses. Those are not just protesters in the sense of the word that normally comes to mind.

Likewise, it is too simple to say that "protests turned violent." That paints a picture of a peaceful gathering that changed into a rock-throwing, tear-gas flying confrontation between citizens and police. Reports from Baltimore indicate that's not been the case in many instances.

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?"

LABELS AND WHY IT'S WISE TO AVOID THEM

Immigrants.

Medical conditions.

Teenager.

"Victims" vs. "survivors." (Particularly in cases of sexual assault.)

Update at 9:55 a.m. ET:

We should also avoid saying that Freddie Gray died while "in police custody." He had been arrested, so he had been taken into custody. But it was a week after his arrest, and he was in a hospital, when he died. The phrase "in police custody" calls to mind someone who is in a jail cell, or who is in handcuffs in the back of a police cruiser.