Editor's note: The words we use matter

Sep 22, 2017

With frustration and anger still boiling over the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley, protesters returned to the streets Sunday to make themselves heard.
Credit Ryan Delaney, St. Louis Public Radio

Excellent advice and information, courtesy of Shula Nueman, St. Louis Public Radio.

It feels like we’ve been here before. Three years ago, the region and the nation witnessed the passion and furor of protesters in Ferguson who came out to decry the shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, at the hands of a white police officer.

And now, the region and nation are watching us again as demonstrators take to the streets to express outrage over a judge's verdict that found Jason Stockley, a white police officer, not guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man, after a high-speed chase in 2011.

It seems like we’ve been here before and yet it feels totally different. As we’ve reported over the past week, the protests of 2017 are mostly strategic, organized and peaceful. While there has been some property damage, it has been minimal when you consider the large number of people who have come out to express their desire to change the criminal justice system (and probably other systems, too) without inflicting harm.

As a reader, you may be following my words and notice already. I didn’t say that the people responsible for breaking storefront windows or throwing paint at St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s house were “thugs” or “vandals” or “agitators.” I didn’t refer to the people marching in the street as “rioters” or “mobsters.” There’s a reason for that: the words we use matter.

As journalists, we are constantly debating the appropriate use of language. The average person would probably crawl out of his or her skin listening to the never-ending debates we have in our newsroom over language. We dispute whether or not the word “infrastructure” is a valid term that everyone will understand, or if it is so broad that no one knows what it means. We gripe when we see that someone has written “the victim was shot by the police,” when they should have said, “the police shot the victim.” (We hate the passive voice. It takes responsibility away from the actor).

When it comes to the language of protests and systemic racism the discussion is even more heated. Is there a difference between protester and demonstrator? Why don’t we use the word “loot”? What do we mean when we say “officer-involved shooting” and should we even use that term?

The answers to these questions are seldom obvious to us. But we have made some decisions and are learning more along the way. So, in the interest of transparency, I offer you a few explanations of how we use or don’t use some terms:

  • Agitator: This is a term the police have been using to describe the people who have lingered after the “official” protest has ended and who seem intent on provoking the police in some form. Based on our observations, there are certainly people who are agitating the police — yelling in their faces, spitting, throwing things. But it’s difficult to apply a monolithic label to a group of people when some are there merely observing or continuing the kind of peaceful protesting that was happening earlier. It’s not that we won’t use this term, it’s that we are very careful who we are referring to as being “agitators.”
  • Looting/looters: This is another one that can be tricky. The dictionary definition of loot is fairly benign (anything taken by dishonesty, force, stealth). However, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, journalists captured images of African-Americans taking food, water and other supplies from stores and called it looting. Yet analogous images of white people doing the same thing was sometimes classified as “finding.” While I am loath to ascribe racist intentions to the people who wrote those tweets, it certainly sounds racist. There may, in fact, be times when our reporters observe people smashing store windows and coming out with televisions, cell phones and computer games. In cases such as those, we will likely call it looting.
  • Outsider: This is a word we will use, but we need to be very specific about what it means. Outside of where? Outside of what? If we know for certain that someone is not from St. Louis who is doing something here, then we are more likely to say just “people not from the region,” rather than classify that person as an outsider.
  • Riot/Rioters: As with looting, rioting has a seemingly clear-cut definition (as well as a legal definition) and we need to be careful about how we use it. For most people, a riot refers to a wild disorder and violence. That might seem straightforward, but one person’s demonstration is another person’s riot if the people who aren’t demonstrating disagree or are afraid of the group that is. During the Ferguson protests, in particular, some people may have been quick to classify the chanting and intensity of people gathered as a riot because the majority of the Ferguson demonstrators were black. For those participating in the chanting and marching, it felt like a demonstration and wasn’t a riot at all. From a journalism perspective, I think it’s safe to stick with the dictionary definition — wild disorder and violence.
  • Thug: Just no. The word is blatant code for black man and it doesn’t have a good connotation.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Nor is this conclusive.

There is room for debate about some words that we do choose to use. For example, are people protesting or demonstrating? Some argue that “protest” can be associated with violence, whereas “demonstrate” connotes people marching together with a purpose.

We are a newsroom that questions our assumptions and challenges ourselves to consider our audience, so feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section about what we are missing or what we should reconsider. I’m not promising we’ll change, but we’ll definitely take your suggestions seriously.

Follow Shula on Twitter: @shuneu