Baltimore awoke on Tuesday morning to remnants of violence and looting from the day before as the simmering tension between residents and the police escalated to a fever pitch. A state of emergency was called on Monday and the National Guard deployed as the frenzied media rush to cover the events in Baltimore, but the debate surrounding its language raises the question of whether what's happening in Baltimore is a "riot" or a "protest" — two different terms with distinctly different implications.
A protest is defined as "an event at which people gather together to show strong disapproval about something," according to Merriam Webster, and a riot as "a situation in which a large group of people behave in a violent and uncontrolled way." The clear difference between the two is that a riot is explicitly described as violent in nature.
As far as the media's interpretation goes, the word "protests" appeared to be used when describing last week's peaceful demonstrations. After violence broke out over the weekend, media outlets began employing the term "riots" instead. The differentiation is important, because the use of language — particularly by the media — has a subtle influence on the way we perceive things — and the public largely relies on the media's understanding of the tumultuous situation in Baltimore.
As the media reported on Baltimore's devastating scenes of chaos and its aftermath on Tuesday, the term "riots" have been used by outlets such as The New York Times and Reuters. The Economist took it a step further, saying that events in Baltimore were "perhaps best described not as a riot but as anarchy."
Debate was rife on Twitter as to whether it was accurate, even fair, to classify developments in Baltimore as a riot. Some accused the media of showing the worst aspects of the demonstrations as they pointed out that peaceful protesters remained.
But many others condemned the violence, using Martin Luther King Jr.'s tactic of non-violence as an example of a protest, in contrast to what they said was a riot in Baltimore.
While it does appear that the violent turn of events in Baltimore seems to warrant it being called a riot, the use of language, particularly by the media, treads a fine line as to how the public perceives a situation — especially one as sensitive and complicated as what's happening in Baltimore.
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