U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards criticized the news media on the description of Freddie Gray protesters being labeled 'thugs', while Oregon gunmen are called 'occupiers.' (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

"Occupiers" vs. "armed lawbreakers." "Protesters" vs. "thugs." "Uprising" vs. "riot." "Workplace violence" vs. "terrorist act."

From the death of Freddie Gray last year in Baltimore to the takeover of a federal building this month in Oregon, the language used in media to describe news events often becomes as controversial as the facts of what happened.


On Monday, U.S. Rep. and Senate candidate Donna Edwards criticized mainstream news media for what she characterized as a willingness to label rioters in Baltimore after Gray's death as "thugs," while describing the gunmen in Oregon as "occupiers."

"Since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, activists protesting the deaths of an unarmed 18-year-old on a city street or the tragic death of a 25-year-old in the back of a police van have been referred to variously as 'thugs,' 'criminals,' and 'drug users,'" Edwards said in a statement.

"But in Oregon, a group of armed men illegally occupying a federal building have been referred to as an 'armed militia,' or simply 'occupiers,' as though that behavior is acceptable in a nation of laws," the Prince George's County Democrat said.

Putting this and other examples under the microscope, analysts say, can reveal the deeper beliefs, values and biases not just of some parts of the news media, but the larger society as well — particularly when it comes to race.

Like Edwards, Goucher College media studies professor Nsenga Burton sees a stark disparity in the terms.

"That's racism — racism and privilege and power," she said.

"It's the inability or unwillingness to use the same lens" to judge the black protesters in Baltimore that is now being used to judge these "white dudes" in Oregon, she explained. "It's the power of one group to define others."

And that can have real consequences for the people being defined, according to Jackie Jones, chair of the multimedia journalism department at Morgan State University.

"Words mean something," she said. "How they are used and the context in which they are used convey certain thoughts and images and reactions. … What you're called may well determine the level of consideration you receive."

Referring to a dictionary definition of thugs as "low-life criminals, hoodlums and ruffians," Jones said, "These are people who, in the minds of many, have no rights worth respecting."

On the other hand, she said, an "occupier" is defined as someone who "seizes and controls," which suggests there can be a righteous "cause ... behind the person's actions."

While "occupiers are given some latitude" and often deemed worthy of negotiation, thugs "are to be quickly dispatched and shown no concern," she added.

Use of the word "thugs" was a major issue in April after Gray's death. The flash point came April 28, the day after the worst rioting, when CNN host Erin Burnett used it in an interview with City Council member Carl Stokes to describe protesters, and he reacted angrily.

Among those using the word were President Barack Obama and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. She apologized; he did not.


When asked for specifics of the word being used in post-Freddie-Gray media, Edwards' campaign pointed to a study by a marketing and media firm that found the word employed 168 times per day on television in the weeks following the riots.

But the study doesn't distinguish between the media using the term to describe rioters or politicians like Obama and Rawlings-Blake using it. The study also found the words "peaceful protests" mentioned in the news nearly 300 times more than the word "thug."

The word appeared in The Baltimore Sun dozens of times last year — but in virtually every case it was either in a quote from an official, or was included in a story about the controversy of the word itself.

There is confusion among politicians, media outlets and their audiences over what words and terms should and can be used. There is still fundamental disagreement as to what the violence in Baltimore on April 25 and 27 should be called.

In May, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski referred to the looting, fires and street battle with police as "disturbances" in an interview on WBAL radio. When asked in a follow-up question by the interviewer if she did not consider them riots, she said she did not.

Later, she apologized on another WBAL show for her language.

"If I in any way seemed like I was minimizing the problem, I apologize," she said in an interview with Clarence M. Mitchell IV, after he pressed her by saying, "If we are not using the appropriate language to name the disease, we can't find the appropriate cure."

Edwards is running against Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic primary to succeed Mikulski.

Towson University professor Richard Vatz said the difference between words like "uprising" or "disturbance" and "riots" matters in how we see and understand — or don't understand and remember — what happened in Baltimore on April 25 and 27.

"Uprising," he said, "implies a purposeful action meant to redress an unfairness. … Uprising implies redress of grievances. The Colonial Army was involved in an uprising. And, yes, I think it implies legitimate motives, if not legitimate actions" by those who set fires, threw bricks at police or vandalized and looted businesses.

The frequency of such language disputes has increased in recent months.

Obama is frequently criticized for resisting use of the term "radical Islamic terrorist" to describe those who have declared jihad on America.

In November and December, the fight on Sunday morning media shows and on the op-ed pages of newspapers was whether the gunman who killed three at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., should be called a terrorist.

Some charged that if the gunman were Muslim, his act would have been instantly labeled terrorism. But a 2009 shooting at Fort Hood by an Army psychiatrist and American-born Muslim, Nidal Hasan, that left 13 dead was still being described by the government as "workplace violence" up until last year.

Burton said she understands what Edwards is saying.

"Unarmed black people called thugs who were protesting abuse in Baltimore were met with an armed militia," Burton said of the National Guard that was called in after the April 27 riots. "And now you have an armed militia of white men called occupiers who take over a government building in Oregon and are met with no violence — only negotiation. … What we call people in the media definitely matters."