‘Call This What It Was’: Elections Experts Share Guidance For Journalists After Capitol Riots

Yemile Bucay
Jan 12 · 7 min read

On Jan. 6, journalists faced one critical need after another. As more facts continue to emerge about what transpired in D.C. and around state capitals, we face more questions. How should we describe what happened? What should local journalists be reporting on? What led to this and how can we explain the context and history of white supremacy clearly to audiences?

So the Election SOS team turned to our network of vetted elections experts to ask them what advice they have for journalists covering this moment. We received responses from election lawyers, misinformation experts, and history professors among others, who offered a range of perspectives of what stories need to be told and what language to use. Here is a compilation of their recommendations.

Please note: these are suggestions from experts who bring perspectives from fields outside of journalism. You and your editor(s) should discuss if and how these recommendations may or may not align with your journalistic practices, roles, and newsroom mission.

Understand the Context

Before we can write about what happened on Jan. 6 accurately and responsibly, we have to understand the context. There are several elements that coalesced into an insurrectionist mob rioting and storming the Capitol. They include:

“First and foremost, pointing out the white supremacy and privilege that occurred yesterday has to be top of everyone’s mind. No one doubts that if those individuals were Black, they would be dead,” Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at the non-profit Common Cause, told us.

Historian of the American Civil War and Reconstruction at the University of Connecticut, Manisha Sinha, explained that the use of terror to disrupt the democratic process and disenfranchise Black or non-white voters has happened repeatedly throughout American history, particularly during Reconstruction.

On Messaging

Experts encouraged that journalists write clearly and directly about what happened while maintaining nuance and avoiding the use of dehumanizing rhetoric.

“We want to make sure to call this what it was (an insurrection), but not give them more power than they have (by saying coup) or minimize them (they were not just protestors). […] If journalists choose to call this terrorism (which we don’t recommend), do not qualify it with the word domestic. They are terrorists, period.”

“There is a careful balance between alarming readers and also helping communities locally confront what is a reality and how/why it is happening (and will continue),” said Coester.

Covering Violence and Recovering from Trauma

What Comes Next

“It’s even more important that media and the public be discussing what sorts of accountability steps are required and what history and international experience teach about how to do them properly (and the dangers of not doing them),” said Ian Bassin, founder and executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit Protect Democracy.

“Left and right oriented cable news analysis shows, talk radio programs, web publications, and even conventional news organizations gave Trump and his outrageous assertions an unprecedented and wildly disproportionate amount of attention beginning in 2014, helping him find his audience and the base that gave him the nomination and, ultimately, the presidency. And since that point, news and news analysis outlets, both political parties, and even NGOs have showcased Trump to garner clicks, ratings, downloads, votes, and donors,” said Sarah Sobieraj, associate professor of sociology at Tufts University.

“We should develop for a new, more humble, patriotism based on an honest confrontation with our nation’s challenges and the fragility of our once proud democratic traditions,” said Austin Sarat, the associate provost and a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College.

Want to delve more deeply into any of these recommendations or get a vetted source for your story? We encourage you to connect with an Election SOS Trusted Expert. Looking for election data or wondering about best practices for covering politics right now? Just email us at info@electionsos.org with any questions or requests. We know everything is especially hectic right now, so let us support you.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and…

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/

Yemile Bucay

Written by

Independent journalist and media researcher. Also producer for Election SOS.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/