Associated Press Stylebook Discourages Use of 'Riot,' Expands Definition of 'Protest' to Include 'Violence'

Rioters throw back tear-gas canisters fired by federal law-enforcement officers in Portland, Ore., July 29, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

The Associated Press Stylebook was amended this week to discourage the use of the word “riot” to describe violent protests, instead expanding the definition of “protest” to include violent demonstrations.

“Use care in deciding which term best applies: A riot is a wild or violent disturbance of the peace involving a group of people. The term riot suggests uncontrolled chaos and pandemonium,” said the AP Stylebook, which sets style guidelines followed by many mainstream media publications.

“Focusing on rioting and property destruction rather than underlying grievance has been used in the past to stigmatize broad swaths of people protesting against lynching, police brutality or for racial justice, going back to the urban uprisings of the 1960s,” it added.

The recommendation comes after months of rioting and looting in cities nationwide sparked by the death of George Floyd in May. 

Riots in the immediate aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. in August led to the fatal shooting of two people and caused an estimated $2 million in damage to city-owned property alone. Violent demonstrations across the country have also injured a number of law enforcement officers, including in Portland, Ore. where riots have raged for more than 125 days straight. 

Merriam-Webster defines a riot as “violent public disorder, specifically a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three of more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent.”

The Associated Press called for the use of “unrest” in place of “riot” when referring to property destruction caused by rioting. 

“Unrest is a vaguer, milder and less emotional term for a condition of angry discontent and protest verging on revolt,” the AP continued.

“Protest and demonstration refer to specific actions such as marches, sit-ins, rallies or other actions meant to register dissent. They can be legal or illegal, organized or spontaneous, peaceful or violent, and involve any number of people,” the AP said. “Revolt and uprising both suggest a broader political dimension or civil upheavals, a sustained period of protests or unrest against powerful groups or governing systems.”

The dictionary says a protest is a “solemn declaration of opinion and usually of dissent” or “the act of objecting or a gesture of disapproval.”

Earlier this year the stylebook drew negative attention when it admonished the word “mistress” as archaic and sexist.

The stylebook’s focus on being politically correct has been the source of criticism from many on the right, as when it banned the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant,” in 2013, suggesting “undocumented immigrant” as a more suitable replacement.

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