“Protest” is a popular word these days, especially when it downplays reality.
Following the violence in Milwaukee last weekend, ABC’s World News Tonight used the words “protest(er)” seven times, but used “riot” only when describing police gear. CBS and NBC each used “riot(er)” once, but also preferred “protest(er),” even though what they described and portrayed amounted to obvious rioting.
In their coverage of the weekend’s events, all three networks used passive language in detailing the looting and destruction. For example, on August 14, ABC reporter Eva Pilgrim announced: “This police car destroyed. Another up in flames. A gas station, an auto parts store, six businesses in all torched.” Similarly, CBS reporter DeMarco Morgan stated: “Police, some in riot gear, quickly found themselves in the paths of rocks, broken glass, even bullets.” NBC correspondent Kerry Sanders declared: “As Milwaukee cleaned up today, officials tallied the damage. Burned and or looted, a gas station, auto supply store, a bank and a local beauty shop. And seven police cruisers smashed and riddled with gunfire.”
Bullets don’t fire themselves. Stores don’t loot themselves or spontaneously burst into flame.
At the end of the August 15 episode of CBS Evening News, Morgan highlighted a recent study that “found that the fuel that may have fed it [the violence] was years of racial disparity.” He then went on to list several alarming statistics, including that 49 percent of black children in Wisconsin live in poverty and that more than half of black men in their thirties or forties have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. However, the obvious elephant in the room was the fact that Sylville Smith was armed and was shot by a black police officer, in an area that had seen five murders in the previous 24 hours. And racial disparity caused the rioting?
Although this incident’s coverage was more balanced than usual, the networks still must answer for their selective presentations.