We Are Hearken
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We Are Hearken

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

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:

  • The belief in white supremacy and the economic, social, and political systems that have developed in the United States since before its founding to uphold it.

“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.

  • Jan. 6’s events were part of a long history of white supremacy in the United States and it is not a surprise to people of color that this violence took place on the day that a Black man and a Jew were elected to represent Georgia in the Senate.

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.

  • Undoubtedly social media has played a role in fueling the rise of insurrectionist sentiment and helping a diverse cross-section of our population organize into a mob. Joshua Tucker, Yannis Theocharis, Margaret E. Roberts, and Pablo Barberá unpack how social media, which has helped pro-democracy demonstrators from the Arab Spring to Hong Kong organize, has also helped the rise of backers of authoritarian regimes.
  • Our media ecosystem is incredibly divided, with sites like Newsmax and OAN now competing with Fox, so it should not come as a surprise that a majority of Republicans do not believe in the election results. Our multi-reality politics will not disappear on Jan. 20, warned Patrick Christmas, policy director at the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan organization advancing civic engagement in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

On Messaging

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

  • Report unflinchingly on what happened and be direct in your descriptions. Albert of Common Cause offered some guidance on what language to use:

“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.”

  • While you should be accurate and precise in the terms you use, also be mindful to use simple and clear words that can easily be translated by audiences for family members that do not speak English, urged Laura Misumi, the executive director of Rising Voices of Asian American Families. Non-English speaking Americans have been repeatedly targeted by disinformation campaigns.
  • Do not remove white supremacy from the story. But give it the proper national context. Don’t yield to the temptation to present these events as a “hillbilly” narrative cautioned Dana Coester, associate professor at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media. That narrative will “decontextualize a national crisis and create a convenient ‘other’ that treats this as an individual problem or a regional problem, but not confront the national, ongoing, unresolved problem of threat of extremist violence and white domestic terrorism in pockets across the country.”
  • Do not say that this is not America or that the events were un-American. To say that these events were not reflective of America invalidates the experiences of Black and Indigenous Americans. This violence will not be resolved by Trump leaving office.

“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.

  • Avoid war words like “enemy,” “the other side,” and “defeat,” cautioned DG Mawn, President of the National Association for Community Mediation, a peace-building organization. “Do not place a group of people in one pool, or label many with one label. This is another method of ‘othering’ rather than looking for constructive and creative solutions,” he added.

Covering Violence and Recovering from Trauma

  • While we hope that there will be no more violence related to the 2020 election results, it’s likely that we have not seen the end of it. There are many resources available to help you protect yourself in the street and online from extremists. Dr. Michelle Ferrier, founder and executive director of TrollBusters, provides a free digital hygiene course you can take in five to ten-minute chunks.
  • The storming of the Capitol and the rhetoric, symbols, and actions of the rioters will trigger trauma for many audiences as well as for journalists involved in covering it. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is chock full of resources that journalists can use to cover trauma sensibly along with guidance on how to take care of ourselves while reporting.
  • How different communities process the trauma of the events will be another story to focus our reporting on. Among those groups are social studies teachers who are actively developing ways to help their students process the events, according to Abby Kiesa, the Director of Impact at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.

What Comes Next

  • By now, we’ve experienced an election period, not just an election day or night. In light of that, we should understand that the events at the Capitol were part of the longstanding election certification period. This “underscores the importance of securing an election all the way until the results are certified and the winners are eventually seated,” according to David Levine, the Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. While it will be up to policymakers and election administrators to implement election safeguards, journalists will need to keep audiences informed of upcoming legislation and explain policy proposals to audiences.
  • In the short term, journalists will have a role to play in accountability by continuing to cover the fall-out of the events, reporting on arrests and charges, or the reasons for the lack of accountability. Rachel Ivey Velázquez Berhnard, assistant professor of political science at UC Davis, reminded us that over the summer, police arrested more than 10,000 protestors around the country who participated in Black Lives Matter marches, yet following the insurrection in D.C. only around 100 people have been arrested, most of whom have been charged with low-grade offenses like violating curfew. Journalists will need to press public officials on what went wrong and what consequences will follow.
  • Journalists should also continue to highlight how differently Black Lives Matter protestors and those calling for social justice were treated than white insurrectionists, said political science professor at the University of Florida Sharon Austin. As journalists covering those who are opposing the election results, be sure to ask interviewees why they are showing up or speaking up to oppose the results. The impetus behind Black Lives Matter protestors actions and those who are opposing the election are different, and those differences matter immensely.
  • There will also need to be a discussion around long term accountability, what it looks like, and how it can be achieved. One critical aspect of accountability will be establishing a clear set of facts accepted by all.

“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.

  • Journalists will need to not only report on the accountability measures that might be taken by Congress or the justice system. We will need to also understand and acknowledge our role in giving Trump and his enablers a platform for years.

“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.

  • For those of us still thinking of America as exceptional and framing our coverage that way, we have to stop.

“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.

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Yemile Bucay

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