Toward the end of August 2020, CNN became the butt of jokes when they showed a reporter standing in front of burning buildings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a direct result of rioting over the Jacob Blake incident. The kicker came from the title over the bottom of the burning images: “Fiery but mostly peaceful protests after police shooting.”
Such blatant contradiction was laughable, a sign of serious cognitive dissonance that any thinking person could see right through.
It appears, however, that CNN was just one step ahead in the new media playbook. In late September 2020, the AP Stylebook rolled out its new standards for reporting about riots.
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. (2/5)
— APStylebook (@APStylebook) September 30, 2020
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. (4/5)
— APStylebook (@APStylebook) September 30, 2020
The AP Stylebook’s tweet thread starts out well enough. Individuals should use care when deciding when to use the word riot. In fact, news organizations like CNN should have been more careful with their word selection. Given the incidents of the last several months, the word riot as defined by the AP should have been used far more than the “peaceful protests” alternative.
But then the AP Stylebook goes off the deep-end by intimating that reporters need to focus on the “underlying grievance” driving riots. Since when, one might ask, must reporters choose their words based on the underlying grievances which may or may not be present in an event? Will news become even more subjective as reporters grapple with what they perceive as the underlying issues affecting a situation?
Perhaps ironically, such guidance by the AP demonstrates that there is a major problem with rioting in the United States. Rather than creating alternative narratives, however, true reporters should ask questions. Are there “underlying grievances” as is suggested, or is the violence we see spurred instead by underlying cultural issues that many in the media would like us to ignore and forget?
The late author and historian Russell Kirk would say the latter. In his book The Roots of American Order, Kirk notes: “One of the more pressing perils of our time is that people may be cut off from their roots in culture and community. ‘The rootless are always violent,’ Hannah Arendt says.”
That being the case, let’s ask if those we see rioting today are “rootless.”
Are they anchored in families, the core of society? A 2019 Pew Research survey found that 23 percent of children 18 and under come from single parent homes, suggesting a high level of instability in family life.
Are they rooted in churches and neighborhoods, connection points that offer support systems on both the metaphysical and physical levels? Gallup reports that in the two decades preceding 2018, church membership dropped from 70 to 50 percent. With regards to communities, only 45 percent of those between ages 18 and 29 report feeling attached to their community, a stark contrast to the 73 percent of adults 65 and older who feel the same.
As Kirk goes on to say,
Whenever people cease to be aware of membership in an order—an order that joins the dead, the living, and the unborn, as well as an order that connects individual to family, family to community, community to nation—those people will form a ‘lonely crowd,’ alienated from the world in which they wander. And to the person and the republic, the consequences of such alienation will be baneful.
No one wants to talk about this “lonely crowd” detached from the traditional moorings of family and community. Instead, their problems and violent outbursts – or rather, “unrest” – are pinned on racism and other grievances.
What will happen if we continue, like the AP Stylebook, to make excuses for violence while trying to convince the general public to “move along, as there’s nothing to see here!”? Sadly, such actions will only hide the real problem and will cut short the precious time we have to reverse course. To quote Kirk again:
Moral and social order, or a vast part of it, may be destroyed by a few years of violence or a few decades of contemptuous neglect. Then hope is lost, for many generations: for order is a kind of organic growth, developing slowly over many centuries….
To live within a just order is to live within a pattern that has beauty. The individual finds purpose within an order, and security—whether it is the order of the soul or the order of the community. Without order, indeed the life of man is poor, nasty, brutish, and short. No order is perfect, but any tolerable order may be improved.
We can continue to promote a continual victim status as the AP seems to be doing. We can just justify the riots continuing to flare up across the country, or we can seek to restore true order by addressing the deeper issues of the heart and soul that plague young Americans. One leads to order and security; the other leads toward nasty brutishness. Which path will you encourage our country to follow?
Flickr-Sergio, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0