The politics of the AP Stylebook: the word “riots” is discouraged because the word is too emotional

Is there any doubt that the AP Stylebook is deliberately changing language not to follow usage, but to mold usage, and in a way that favors certain political and ideological positions? I realized that when, giving cockamamie and totally unconvincing reasons, they recommended the usage of “Black”, with a capital “B” and “white”, with a small “w”, for writing the names of ethnic groups (see my post on that here, and read about Rachel Alexander’s other examples of the AP Stylebook’s politics). The NY Times has adopted the “Black” versus “white” distinction—an attempt to empower blackness and denigrate whiteness—while the Washington Post gives both terms capital letters.

This latest change, discussed here, is so blatantly an attempt to downplay the effects of violence connected with political protests that only a fool could think it’s not an attempt to sanitize language. Here the AP, in a series of tweets below, suggests that its adherents downplay the use of the word “riot” because it has been used to “stigmatize broad swaths of people”, and it also supposedly detracts from the legitimate grievances of protestors seeking social justice.

In its place, the AP suggests “unrest”.

That’s laughable. “There was some unrest in Portland last night as protestors set buildings on fire, broke into stores, destroyed the police station, looted, and fired shots.” What happened in Portland and Seattle, and now other places, were riots, at least in terms of the definition suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary, my go-to place for usage:

 4. “Riot”

a. A violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd; an outbreak of violent civil disorder or lawlessness. Formerly also: †a violent attack (obsolete).

b. Violent disturbance of the peace, esp. by a crowd; civil disorder. Formerly also: †depredation, plunder (obsolete).

The first three OED definitions, not given here, aren’t relevant to crowd “unrest”.  And yes, this sounds pretty much what was going on in Portland, Seattle, and Louisville: a “violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd,” or “civil disorder.” Yes, many protestors were peaceful, but there was also rioting.

The changes are of course reported by a right-wing website, the National Review (do you think the NYT or WaPo would write about this?), but are also reported at Yahoo! News. For the NR article, click on the screenshot below:


And here’s the AP’s suggestions. Recall that the stylebook’s function is not to define words, but to suggest when and how they should be used in journalism.  The first two tweets are the telling ones, although number 3 is interesting in saying that one should use “unrest” because it’s “less emotional” than the word “riot.” I have no beef with numbers 4 and 5.

The Woke Left and its organs have continually downplayed violence accompanying protests, including arson, looting, and destruction—unless it’s clearly done by the Right. Yet here we see the AP pushing a Woke Leftist change of language to lessen “emotional” reactions, like those unreasonable mom-and-pop merchants who don’t want their businesses destroyed.

In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell foresaw such euphemistic language used in the service of ideology; you must read that essay you haven’t before (it’s free online). The essay is not just a primer on how to write, but a lesson in how to sanitize what’s politically unpalatable by using “softer” words. An example:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

Likewise, the English language has deteriorated in the service of Wokeness. And so, as “riot” becomes “unrest”, the Left converges with the Right as well as the old Communist Left.

To read more about the vacuity of Wokespeak, I’d recommend reading Nicholas Clairmont’s “The Language of Privilege” at Tablet. You might well disagree with his thesis, but there’s no denying that Wokespeak is often meant not to convey meaning or effect social change, but to preen and flaunt your virtue.


h/t: Cesar


  1. eric
    Posted October 2, 2020 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Finally, my Pussy Unrest shirt comes into fashion.

    • sugould
      Posted October 2, 2020 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Isn’t “unrest” what PCCe has at night sometimes?

  2. Marty L.
    Posted October 2, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Just yesterday a friend was complaining about biased media like Fox News. They said people should check with the unbiased media like NPR and the AP before posting stories. I’m not sure there really is any unbiased media, but if there is it certainly isn’t NPR or even the AP.

    • eric
      Posted October 2, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      I tend to think that foreign news sources are going to be somewhat less politically biased, if only because they don’t care as much about US outcomes as USAians do. Skewing the news requires you have an emotional investment in the outcome of the skew; if you don’t, you probably won’t bother. Sure, these sources will have their own odd biases, but you can be pretty sure they aren’t reporting a certain way merely because they’re beholden to the Democrats or Republicans.

      So, the Beeb is pretty good I think. Again not unbiased, just differently biased where their bias isn’t going to be focused on pleasing US liberal or US conservative readers. Depending on your foreign language skills, probably any first world country’s main top one or two sources might also be good to check.

      • jezgrove
        Posted October 2, 2020 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        I find that it’s always a pretty good sanity check to see how your own nation’s political news is reported by reliable news sources in other countries. Not least because it helps put things (Brexit, gun control, whatever…) into proportion.

      • savage
        Posted October 2, 2020 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

        What about bloggers? On almost all subjects, journalists have no expertise that sets them apart from a reasonably intelligent reader.

    • dd
      Posted October 2, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      All media is biased….but the issue is, Are they scrupulous and strive to present a fair picture of the world?

      NYTimes was something like that once, but that was long ago. So, is NPR.

      In fact, the business model is FOX…and much of it has to do with the bottom line.

      I have tried to tell friends they need to read skeptically, looking for sins of omission and commissions. But, they think along the lines of NYTimes=truth…always.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 2, 2020 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        When people mess with my language and tell me I can’t say things or at least strongly advise that I cannot….I get very upset. It’s like a gentle form of mind control. Makes me say “fuck” just to be irreverent.

        • sugould
          Posted October 2, 2020 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

          Under the current climate, if a group mobbed me and demanded “Say it! I love cats! SAY IT!” I wouldn’t.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 2, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      But the AP is just a stylebook. That’s comparing apples to oranges. It’s like saying when buying a new car, always check the weather forecast.

  3. Jon Gallant
    Posted October 2, 2020 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    U.S. history is stained by numerous race riots, including the terrible Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which 26 African-Americans were killed and many African-American businesses were destroyed. We can now look forward to A.P. historical articles which describe the event as the “Tulsa unrest”. Perhaps we can also look forward to articles emphasizing how peaceful Mussolini’s march on Rome was in 1922—and it was peaceful, almost entirely a show of force. Less, “unrest” there than in some recent nights in Portland.

    • savage
      Posted October 3, 2020 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Of course, the Tulsa riots have been renamed “Tulsa massacre” on Wikipedia just this summer 🙂 Lest anyone gets wrong ideas…

  4. Posted October 2, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I have no beef with numbers 4 and 5.

    Though traditionally one would use “protest” or “demonstration” only about peaceful events, not about violent ones.

    One might talk about a protest march “turning violent” (and thus no longer being just a protest march).

  5. DrBrydon
    Posted October 2, 2020 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    We’ve always been at war with Eastasia….

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 2, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    MLA all the way!

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 2, 2020 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    If “riot” is good enough for Sly & the Family Stone, it damn well oughta be good enough for the AP Stylebook.

  8. Two-Tone Army 1972
    Posted October 2, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I was a copy editor at a major U.S. newspaper for 15 years, and I always admired The Associated Press for its standards and scope of coverage. However, The AP Stylebook became a running joke in the newsroom: The 2010 version is just fine, since the handful of changes made over the years cannot justify the cost of buying the most up-to-date edition.

    These AP’s narrow-minded, Woke-appeasing language changes will further erode trust in traditional media, especially newspapers, which rely heavily upon its stories and photos after significant reductions in editorial staff.

    The Associated Press has been a professional, respectable source of news coverage since its founding in 1847. But just like The New York Times, its credibility has whittled away as it descends into the abyss of Woke ideology.

    I hope I’m wrong about this.

  9. jezgrove
    Posted October 2, 2020 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    “Riot” is a perfectly acceptable word if used appropriately and impartially.

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 2, 2020 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Hoe oh well will we refer to the band Quiet Riot? They are a main stay of my 80s hair band play list. Cum on feel the noize! Clearly they can’t spell either.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 2, 2020 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      Oh how will is how that is supposed to start.

      • John Dentinger
        Posted October 2, 2020 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

        So you think I got a funny face? I ain’t got no worries!
        Right up there with AC DC in my playlist.

    • eric
      Posted October 2, 2020 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      Where are the Pythons when you need them? “I’m looking for a record. Do you have C’mon Feel the Noizze by Quite Rite?” That’s Noizze with two z’s. No? How about ‘C’mon feel the murmur’ by Quiet Unrest?

  11. Deodand
    Posted October 2, 2020 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    It sounds like the way in which the London Underground used to refer to any fire, no matter how serious as a ‘smouldering’.

    The whole point was to minimize the nature of issues. Then the Kings Cross Fire occurred and the issue could no longer be swept under the rug.

  12. KD
    Posted October 3, 2020 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Perhaps “most peaceful property and casualty impairment”?

  13. KD
    Posted October 3, 2020 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Perhaps “mostly peaceful property and casualty impairment”?

  14. merilee
    Posted October 4, 2020 at 5:06 pm | Permalink


Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: