The News Media's Lexicon
I hate the news. I suppose I don’t hate the news per se, but I really hate the people who deliver the news. They do a horrifically bad job. Everyone complains about meteorologists, but their job is really hard. The weather in incredibly complex and they are trying to tell us things about the future. The news media, on the other hand, is only supposed to inform us of what has already happened, but they mislead much more often than they inform.
I blame a lot of the misinformation on the vocabulary they use. One word that consistently bothers me is, “Slam.” Any time one politician disagrees publicly with another politician, the headline will read, “Smith slams Jones over important issue.” Sometimes, this is accurate, or as accurate as it can be using figurative language. I would say that Lloyd Bentsen did slam Dan Quayle with his, “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” line. Other times it is completely ridiculous. After the last State of the Union, the headlines said that Boehner slammed Obama by saying, “Veto threats and fantasy land proposals from the White House will not distract the people’s House from the people’s priorities.” I’m surprised no punches were thrown. At least he kept Obama’s mother out of it.
The reason this bugs me is because, as a news consumer, I have no sense for what actually happened from reading the headlines. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately while reading the news out of Baltimore. There are two words that keep getting used, riot and protest, and neither seems right to me. They seem to show the ideology of the news organization doing the reporting, but they don’t describe what is actually happening.
When I hear the word riot, I think of something senseless. It is disorganized and destructive. The people calling what happened in Baltimore riots seem to have a pretty negative view of the people of Baltimore.
When I hear the word protest, I think of something focused. It is about something specific. The people calling what happened in Baltimore protests seem to have a pretty positive view of the people of Baltimore.
I don’t think the word riot works because the events weren’t senseless. It might have been disorganized and destructive (although that’s debatable), but it is clearly understandable. I don’t think protest works because the events weren’t focused. Sure, Freddie Gray was the spark, but there was a lot under the surface that led to this.
If I had to put a label on what happened, I would go with outcry. It seems to capture both sides. It is almost like a sensible riot or an unfocused protest. Unfortunately, the news media’s lexicon is so small, they can’t even try for a more accurate word. And that leaves us all ill informed.